Dance-Maker Stanton Welch Celebrates Ten Years at Houston Ballet

For some, dance is truly in the blood.

The significance of his dual roles as artistic director and choreographer cannot be downplayed. "He is valued as a choreographer internationally," notes Wendy Perron, editor-at-large of Dance Magazine. "He's more than just a choreographer that will do a piece on his own company because it's convenient and less expensive." She singles out his Maninyas (1996) and Clear (2001) as particularly durable works. "In Maninyas, I mainly remember the women in long dresses. He has them do deep pliés in second position where you see them close to the ground. They are really strong. It looks almost like modern dance." And anyone who has seen Clear knows of its striking, raw power. The dance is for seven men and one woman, but this isn't the standard dance trope of a flock of male specimens scampering after the lone female. It's an ode to the elegance of the masculine line and a meditation of the importance of femininity in the world.

Welch's contemporary work is compelling, certainly, but his story ballets are equally powerful. Their narrative richness is bolstered by a fine sense of character and psychology, particularly in his heroines. From Madame Butterfly to Cinderella to Marie, his women are strong-willed, thoughtful and complex. "I was always bothered by one-dimensional or flat characters in dance," says Welch. "In every female role, she dies and forgives the man for cheating on her and life goes on. I wanted to create roles for women who were in charge of their own lives, even if it ended tragically."

On the contrary, Welch's Cinderella is a sprightly tomboy who doesn't fall for the majestic prince but chooses the lowly yet spirited valet. His Madame Butterfly isn't a victim of circumstance but a woman who must reconcile her own mistakes with the social structures of her culture. And in Marie, the French queen isn't an oblivious royal who thinks the remedy for her impoverished people is a good helping of cake; rather, she's a warm matriarch with a sensible head who has the misfortune of sitting on the throne during the most tumultuous time in French history. Why bother with character arc when Welch could just make pretty dances?

Houston Ballet Principal Dancer Melody Mennite as Marie Antoinette, another one of Stanton Welch's strong-willed and complex women.
Pam Francis
Houston Ballet Principal Dancer Melody Mennite as Marie Antoinette, another one of Stanton Welch's strong-willed and complex women.
Former Houston Ballet Principal Dancer Amy Fote in Madame Butterfly, Stanton Welch's first full-length ballet.
Amitava Sarkar
Former Houston Ballet Principal Dancer Amy Fote in Madame Butterfly, Stanton Welch's first full-length ballet.

"There is both a light and dark side to every character," he explains. "No one is ever wholesomely good or completely bad. That's a large part of all my stories. The more baggage the characters have, the more interesting they are. We are all those people." Welch's narrative ballets are the company's biggest ticket sellers, which in turn gives him the financial freedom to venture into more experimental works.

But what is Welch really trying to accomplish as artistic director of Houston Ballet? The answer goes back to when he first saw ballet as an audience member. "I want to share the experience of how I fell in love with this art form. I want the dancers to experience the work of all the choreographers, the designers, the music, everything I find inspirational." This love of the art form is cultivated in large part through the company's annual choreographic workshop, which allows the dancers to try their hand at crafting their own work. The level of participation is always high. "A lot of companies do choreographic workshops," says Walsh. "But in ours we have nearly 15 dancers trying to choreograph. That says a lot about the type of people Stanton is drawn to. It makes us more understanding and more open-minded."

And prepared for dance beyond Houston Ballet.

"The workshop is about making this group become the next leaders of the dance world," says Welch. "Leaders of the dance world are great dancers, executive directors, artistic directors. Even if you don't want to choreograph, try it, and understand the mechanics of it. It's pulling back the curtain to reveal the wizard." His methodology has yielded visible success, as the season kicked off with world premieres from Houston Ballet alumni Melissa Hough and Garrett Smith. Of course, not every dancer will become a choreographer, but Welch still feels a person can never know too much. "I want the dancers to have a rounded sense of everything. We teach them how to take care of the costumes, write reviews, all sorts of things, so that whatever their path is, they still have an understanding of what everyone else does."

Welch is celebrating his tenth year as artistic director of one of the country's most beloved dance companies by continuing to work at full speed. The company will begin its annual run of Ben Stevenson's The Nutcracker on November 29 and will perform its one-night Jubilee of Dance on December 6. Then the company will prepare for the American premiere of David Bintley's Aladdin. After that, Houston audiences get to see Welch's evolution as a choreographer with The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. This mixed-rep program will feature three Welch choreographies from different points in his career: Maninyas, Of Blessed Memory and the world premiere of the title work set to Benjamin Britton's music of the same name. May's Modern Masters will see the work of George Balanchine, William Forsythe and Jií Kylián all in one program, and then the season will end with Welch's Swan Lake in June. It's a season to remember, for sure.

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