Politics of the Dance

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

If Houston Grand Opera failed to have a note taker at a dramatic and sometimes teary ad hoc meeting of dancers and staff of the Houston Ballet last week, it missed out on a great plot for one of HGO chief David Gockley's hypermodern productions.

Here's the outline for the libretto: 25-year veteran artistic director Ben Stevenson, an international figure in the world of dance, stunned the ballet board with a surprise resignation. Although Stevenson didn't spell it out, friends say his move was prompted by years of push, pull and frustration with the company's ambitious managing director, Cecil C. Conner. Stevenson felt Conner was poaching in his realm of artistic direction, a view seconded by an executive board member.

"Conner was crossing the line into artistic matters without necessarily consulting Ben," the board member says. "No one situation was enough to cause any concern. But over time it became like a marriage where you wake up one morning and go, 'Ugh, I want out.' "

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

The managing director, a bearded, balding, bespectacled former practicing lawyer who wears a trademark bow tie and suspenders, denies he has intruded on Stevenson's artistic prerogatives, and claims the artistic director never complained to him. He says he's surprised that board members and dancers would make such claims.

Conner's backers on the board see him as a business whiz who helped the ballet build a solid financial organization with a massive $45 million endowment. To this camp, Stevenson is an overly emotional and theatrical personality whose high-maintenance nature has grown with the length of his tenure and international reputation. Both men make approximately $180,000 annually, though Conner says his colleague makes more than he does. Stevenson is under contract with the ballet till 2003.

According to a supporter, Stevenson finally tired of "swimming upstream" in fights with Conner. Minor irritants included columns critical of Stevenson's choreography, authored by a close friend of Conner's. The pieces appeared in the Houston Voice, and Stevenson took them as thinly veiled attacks by the managing director.

Conner says his friend, David Groover, does reviews for the Voice, but Conner denies having any responsibility for their content.

Stevenson dropped his bombshell resignation, fully intending to step down but expecting that the board would read between the lines as to his motivation. If that was the intent, it failed miserably. When board member Harriet Bath made a motion to shelve action on the resignation and continue discussions, it died for lack of a second. The board then approved Stevenson's resignation and his requested status as artist in residence. Later, board members explained sheepishly that they thought that was what Stevenson wanted.

The night after the resignation, the shocked dance troupe rallied at principal dancer Dominic Walsh's home, discussing the situation until 3 a.m. They decided to call an emergency meeting the next evening and began working the phones, summoning board members to a rehearsal room on the third floor of the Wortham Center.

Principal dancer Lauren Anderson asked that Stevenson and Conner step outside, then one dancer after another rose to explain Stevenson's artistic merits to several ballet board members. They talked of problems that had resulted from the intrusion of business considerations into artistic matters. One area was salary negotiations with principal dancers.

A troupe source claims the managing director frequently made unprofessional comments, including misrepresenting Stevenson's views about dancers' abilities when explaining why they would not get the pay levels they sought. Conner denies he ever misled dancers.

"There was incredible unity," says one dancer. "We wanted a meeting where we were free to talk. The dancers couldn't talk in front of someone who could fire them."

At one point, ballet supporter Carolyn Farb drew applause by stating flatly, "C.C. Conner is the problem." She later expanded on the point.

"He had created the disharmony within the company," says Farb. "It was his dictatorial rulership of the Houston Ballet and his undermining of Ben."

Dancers asked not to be quoted by name. One explained why the troupe intervened with the dramatic direct plea to board members to keep Stevenson as a daily presence with the company.

"This is our lives, and we know Ben is an incredible artistic director. As soon as Ben made the announcement, the dancers decided, 'We've got to do something about this.' We felt that we could not let this happen."

At the end of the two-hour meeting, Stevenson returned with associate Trinidad Vives and Ballet Foundation chairman John Smither. They had a proposed compromise apparently hammered out during the dancers' presentation. Instead of taking a subordinate position as artist in residence, Stevenson would share artistic director duties with Vives for the current season and the next. Nothing was said about the root problem: the working relationship between Conner and Stevenson.

"They had tears in their eyes and everybody stood up and gave them a standing ovation," says a participant. "We hugged, talked and felt like we had a great victory."

Many dancers, some board members and Stevenson departed for a celebratory pizza at nearby Birraporetti's. At least a temporary feeling of well-being returned to the ballet, which is preparing for a tour of Stevenson's native England.

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.

"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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