Ballet can evoke many things — beauty, grace, the elegance of the human body in its finest form. Just ask the most casual dance-goer, say, a Houstonian who has seen The Nutcracker only once or twice as a kid, and he or she will tell you that the world of ballet is one of enchantment. It's a world where handsome princes are beguiled by gorgeous swan maidens, and fairy tales are brought to life through splendid costuming, ornate set design and soaring Tchaikovsky music. For the general audience, ballet is an escape of the highest fantasy.
But for Stanton Welch, the esteemed artistic director of Houston Ballet who is celebrating ten years at the helm, dance was anything but pretty when he was growing up. The son of famed Australian dancers Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones, Welch and his younger brother, Damien, witnessed firsthand the physical and emotional toll of an elite dance career. "We watched how hard [our parents] would have to work," he says. "We visited Mother in hospital for surgeries, bruising. I remember she tore her Achilles and visiting her for that. These aren't normal things you see a parent come home with." The long hours away from his parents were also a struggle, as was their continual presence in the media. "As a kid, you're sensitive to anything written in the newspaper," he says. "There's this whole facade that ballet is effortless and tranquil, and it's not. We never had that facade; we saw the sweat, the tears, the bloodied shoes."
Ironically, it was from the vantage point of the audience that Welch answered the call to dance. His parents were still teaching dance but were no longer performing with The Australian Ballet. After four years of not watching ballet, Welch began dressing — helping performers with their costume changes — backstage to earn extra cash. It was at this point that he was finally able to see what everyone else in the audience was watching: pure magic. "At that point I wanted to be an actor in film and plays, but I saw that dance was an ultimate way of expression. You had music, you had movement, you had acting. Dance was the three coming together at a perfect point." His formal dance training commenced soon after, at the age of 17, and a scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School followed before he joined The Australian Ballet in 1989. Despite a relatively late start, Stanton Welch rose to become a leading soloist with the company, while brother Damien eventually became a principal dancer with the company.
For some, dance is truly in the blood.
While Houston audiences know him as a choreographer, Welch also left an impression on his peers during his short career as a dancer. "Stanton was a beautiful dancer," says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet. "He had wonderful genetic gifts with beautiful feet and line, and he was quite a poetic artist. I remember his Des Grieux in Manon as a real highlight." But even from his early days as a dancer, there was an urgency to create more than there was to perform. "I think his choreography was the passion for him, and a way for him to explore his creativity with a broader palette," observes McAllister. "He retired from dancing relatively young, but rather than miss performing, it looked as though it was almost a catalyst for him to grow as a choreographer." Welch's first big commission came from The Australian Ballet in 1991 with Of Blessed Memory. McAllister describes the piece as "a wonderful work," which the company took on tour to London the following year. Over the next few years, commissions came from San Francisco Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Singapore Dance Theatre and Colorado Ballet. It was only a matter of time before Houston would call.
Then-Artistic Director Ben Stevenson commissioned Welch in 1999 to create Indigo for Houston Ballet. Welch felt an immediate connection to the city and its widely admired ballet company. "It actually reminded me a lot of home," he recalls. "The Australian Ballet and Houston Ballet both had a very similar evolution. They both came from the Ballets Russes, and developed into big classical companies that performed both story ballet and contemporary work. Houston Ballet was the most similar to what I had experienced growing up. It felt like home, like something I understood." He also took a liking to the city's independent spirit, which translated to the work produced by its ballet company. "Houston isn't like the rest of America. It's developed its own voice in its own way, which I believe is a very Texas thing, and makes the company special."
Welch felt a sense of kinship with Houston Ballet from the very beginning, and the feeling was mutual among the dancers. Mireille Hassenboehler, a principal dancer under both Stevenson and Welch, recalls recognizing his name on the roster of the upcoming season's choreographers. "I knew him as a dancer first," she says, since Hassenboehler and Welch had trained together as students at the San Francisco Ballet School.
What struck her most was his complex choreographic process. "As he started to work on Indigo, I knew this guy had it going on. I never experienced anything like it before, this kind of layering that he does so well. He'll start with the first layer, just like a canvas, and he'll add the second layer. That was the first time I had ever worked with a choreographer who worked that way." For Hassenboehler, the transition between artistic directors in 2003 proved a smooth one.
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.
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?
"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."
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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.
Stevenson directed Houston Ballet for 27 years, and from the looks of things, the company has another long-term director-choreographer as its guidepost. But even if one were to look only at Welch's first ten years, his impact has already been felt. "I think he is a choreographer who has pushed the art form of ballet into the 21st century," says McAllister. "His work spans the gamut from one-act to narrative-length works, and he has reinterpreted classics as well as created original pieces. He is prolific and innovative, and his works reveal the strengths of his dancers, often surprising them in the process."
There's the Center for Dance, the Ben Stevenson Academy, and the continued efforts to bring Houston Ballet to both national and international audiences. But Welch isn't just working for the advancement of dance; rather, he sees his work as part of a citywide initiative to provide stimulating, challenging programming across all arts disciplines. "There's something pioneering about Houston, about wanting to create," he observes. "You can see it in all the art forms, at the Menil, the opera, the symphony. These are extremely brave organizations, and we are matching what they are doing."
Having a world-class ballet company isn't a luxury for a city that plans to leave a mark on the national cultural landscape; it's a necessity. "If you look back at the great empires of the world — the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Chinese — their greatness is reflected in their art. It captures the essence of that area. It's like leaving a footprint," he says. "That's what we're all here for, to leave an impression."