Forever On His Toes

Ben Stevenson has built Houston Ballet into one of the biggest companies in the country. So why does his job often seem in jeopardy?

In his office, Ben Stevenson is surrounded by friends. The walls are covered with framed autographs and letters and photos of famous dancers and musical theater stars. Outside, his smiling secretary arranges his lunch plans and gets his coffee. Above him, in the airy rehearsal studios of the Houston Ballet Academy, his students leap and land with such vigor that they occasionally rattle the ceiling. The sound is unnoticed by those who work below -- perhaps it is even a comfort, like the white noise of an air conditioner.

Still, Stevenson sits awkwardly on his purple couch, a small pillow strategically placed to obscure the double chin he is self-conscious about. His thinning hair is pressed against his head with the sweat from just having taught a class. His belly peeks out between the buttons of his shirt. He does not exude the confidence and power of a man who has built one of the five largest ballet companies in the country, made the careers of internationally renowned dancers, and been called one of the best choreographers of full-length story ballets in the world.

"When you come in, everyone thinks you're some genius, and then suddenly they realize you're just an ordinary person and you're not walking on clouds," he says quietly, nostalgically. "I noticed when I came here that there were some gorgeous old buildings that people just pulled down and built some awful supermarket in the place…I think sometimes people build something up, and then they tear it down."

Ben Stevenson says his greatest accomplishment is having lasted 25 years at the helm of Houston Ballet.
Deron Neblett
Ben Stevenson says his greatest accomplishment is having lasted 25 years at the helm of Houston Ballet.

Ben Stevenson has recently managed to avoid the wrecking ball himself. In March newspapers printed the surprise announcement of his resignation from the top artistic post he has held for 25 years. "Somehow I just felt like I was stale soup or something. I didn't feel I was important," he says in a soft British accent. "I suppose it was my feeling that I wanted to be heard, and I wanted not just to be some old ship that had sort of sailed by. I wanted to let people know: I still wanted to be in charge. I still wanted to be the director. And if I couldn't be, then I wouldn't do that."

Those who know him would not be surprised by his words. Stevenson, they say, is a frightfully insecure man. He tells self-deprecating jokes. He talks about how difficult it is to have his work, whether his choreography or his dancers, on stage for everyone to see and to criticize. He talks about how hard it is to stay on top. He talks about not being loved by everyone. Stevenson has been known to throw lavish dinner parties and give extravagant gifts like boats and fur coats. He has given away so much that his close friends worry he will not have the money to retire comfortably.

This insecurity is perhaps one of Stevenson's most charming attributes, but it is also his Achilles' heel. It allows him to create sensitive, romantic pas de deux, to inspire dancers to do more than they ever thought possible, and to make lifelong friends who come rushing to his aid whenever he is threatened. But it also makes him vulnerable to attack by those who see insecurity as a lack of confidence, or even competence.

Ben Stevenson is the longest-serving head of a major American ballet company. But every five years or so, it seems he might be out of a job.

By and large, ballet dancers are, by nature or by training, insecure people. Even years after her retirement, Houston's most famous prima ballerina, Janie Parker, can hardly accept a compliment. She says she really couldn't do anything. She couldn't turn, she couldn't beat, she couldn't jump, she couldn't balance. The fact that audiences around the world saw incredible talent in her performances and critics gave her rave reviews, she attributes to Ben Stevenson's magic and passion and imagination.

Houston Ballet's reigning prima, Lauren Anderson, though a brasher character than Parker, also lists her weaknesses without hesitation: Her extension is too low, her feet don't bulge over at the arches, and, oh, she doesn't jump as high as she used to.

"The dancer mentality is this," she says. "One wall of our lives is a mirror, and you never like what you see. And you're always being told, 'This is wrong and this is wrong and you have to make this right.' You get a 'good' every once in a while…so the next three months you're working toward another 'good'…You're always trying to be perfect…Forget it. It's never going to happen, but that's what you're striving for your entire career.

"There's one person that's in control, the director. You get into the company, and it's all about pleasing him," she continues. "You feel like they're standing over you like a monster. Is Ben going to like this?…Then your whole life it's like, 'You've got to do this with confidence. You've got to know it.' That's where the ego steps in. So dancers are the most insecure, egotistical people in the world."

Stevenson himself, Anderson says, is no exception. She describes him as simultaneously insecure and sure of himself, an introverted extrovert, inside out. "I sound like I'm speaking like Willy Wonka."

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