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Dance-Maker Stanton Welch Celebrates Ten Years at Houston Ballet

For some, dance is truly in the blood.

For many of the dancers in the company, Welch was a contemporary, one in whom they could find a friend. Former principal dancer Barbara Bears recalls the difference in her working relationships with Stevenson and Welch. "I couldn't call [Stevenson] 'Ben' for like ten years. I was a young kid and he was an established director. I didn't really start calling him 'Ben' until after I became a principal, but I knew Stanton on a personal level outside of work. There wasn't that sort of distance. We had a bit more of a friendship going. That certainly helped in the studio."

Cecil C. Conner Jr., now managing director emeritus of Houston Ballet, who was managing director from 1995 to 2012, says that following Stevenson's departure, one dancer retired and three others went to jobs with other companies, which he called typical for a 55-member company. Within about three years, five Houston Ballet dancers followed Stevenson to Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth, but there was never a stampede of departures, Conner says. "Because they did know him [Welch] because they had worked with him three times; he had done two works for Houston Ballet several years earlier, and in the fall, when the search was taking place, he was staging Madame Butterfly," Conner says.

Welch's diligent work ethic is evident in any studio in which he works. Welch is also the resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet, and McAllister notes that "he always brings energy and passion to the rehearsal room when he's with us. There is always a great buzz when he's in the building." As far as how dances are actually made, both Bears and Hassenboehler recall the varied nature of Welch's choreographic process. At times he would come into the studio with dances completely mapped out step-by-step; other times he would create more of a collaborative effort with the dancers. Now that the company is truly his in terms of the amount of time he has spent with the dancers as a unit, he's been more inclined to the latter. "Over time, he's opening up because he's more comfortable with the dancers he's brought in," explains Principal Dancer Connor Walsh. "For pas de deux work or intricate partnering work, he's very spontaneous in the studio and lets his imagination go."

The immediate trust between artistic director and dancers was crucial considering the amount of new work Welch added to the repertoire following his arrival. He lost no time creating world premieres with Bolero, Blindness and Tales of Texas, his first evening-length feature choreographed specifically for Houston Ballet. With Texas, he demonstrated an innate understanding of his adoptive home, its people and their tenacious spirit. The three-act ballet covers all the Texas basics, from line dancing and two-stepping to Patsy Cline and Pecos Bill. More world premieres followed, including Nosotros, as well as older works that he set on Houston Ballet for the first time.

Hassenboehler, who recently retired from the company after reprising her lead role in September's The Merry Widow, remembers the brisk pace of those first years. "At first it seemed like I was always learning something new and I was always trying to catch up. We had to get things done quicker in a short amount of time." There wasn't just Welch's work to learn, but also an influx of commissioned ballets. The opportunity to work with some of the dance world's most respected contemporary choreographers was a challenge that the dancers welcomed with open arms.

According to Bears, Welch's deepening of the rep was his most significant impact on the company. "He kept adding to the rep to give the Houston audience a more diverse experience. He pushed hard for more Kylián and Cranko and all these wonderful choreographers. As a dancer, you think you won't have the opportunity to do them, but we did." He's also made it a priority to increase the number of Balanchine pieces performed by the company, an effort that has been clearly visible in the mixed-rep programs of the past few seasons. But is strengthening the repertoire all that's required of a top-notch artistic director?

Obviously, there is the physical manifestation of his commitment to Houston Ballet in the form of the Center for Dance, the company's $46.6 million headquarters on Preston, which was built almost entirely with private funding. It also just happens to be the largest facility of its kind in the United States; however, it's the work that goes on inside that's even more important to the growth of the organization.

Walsh points to Welch's continued involvement and investment in the Ben Stevenson Academy as a key factor in the growth of the company. "The standard is very high. The company still has a proud reputation where the majority of dancers who join the company come from the school." The level of technical proficiency of the academy's students is so high that many are taken into the company despite regular auditions held in New York City and San Francisco, the country's two breeding grounds for dance talent. To ensure that his dancers get the best training possible, Welch frequently brings in guest coaches, including Johnny Eliason of Denmark and Yannick Bouquin of France. The result is a company that's technically sound yet theatrically captivating.

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