Forever On His Toes

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 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."

Stevenson was a gifted dancer. His résumé reads like a who's who of the ballet world. He trained at the Arts Educational School in London. By the age of 18, he had performed with one of Britain's biggest ballet stars, Alicia Markova. At 19, he joined Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and worked with dance luminaries Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko. Later, he became a principal with the London Festival Ballet and staged a Sleeping Beauty starring Margot Fonteyn. But at 29, a riding accident resulted in a broken ankle and the end of Stevenson's performing career. He turned to teaching and choreographing, heading up first the Harkness Youth Dancers in New York and then the short-lived National Ballet in Washington, D.C. In 1976 George Balanchine hired Stevenson to set his Cinderella on Balanchine's Geneva company. It was there that Houston Ballet's search committee found him.

If his ballet training didn't provide Stevenson with enough insecurity, his experience with Houston Ballet would make up the difference. When he came to Houston, the company was only six years old, but it had chewed through three artistic directors -- first Tatiana Semenova and Nina Popova, both of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and then the young American James Clouser, who had been promoted from his position as resident choreographer. When Stevenson was appointed, he already faced an uphill battle with Clouser's supporters. A newspaper headline announced, "Choice of Ballet Chief Stuns Dance Community."

It was not at all clear that Stevenson would last, but it seemed that he and the ballet board were on the same page. They wanted to build a company from the ground up, focusing on the classics and an academy to produce their own stars rather than renting them. Judging by the current face of Houston Ballet, the plan largely has played out. But behind the scenes, there were problems.

In the mid-1980s a faction of the board led by Louisa Sarofim decided Houston Ballet should be more like the Balanchine-founded New York City Ballet. If they were looking for the next Balanchine in Stevenson, they were looking in the wrong place. The daring New York neoclassicist had pushed ballet's boundaries and forever changed its form. As a choreographer, Stevenson was more interested in preserving the old ways, if tweaking them slightly to maintain their relevance. But Stevenson also was building the kind of company that would later dominate the American landscape: well-trained dancers who could handle any style of choreography, and an eclectic repertory that could entice subscribers with everything from Swan Lake to a contemporary program of up-and- coming choreographers. Balanchine ballets would certainly be welcomed into the mix, but it is said that for years after Stevenson enticed Janie Parker away from Balanchine's Geneva company, Houston Ballet had a tough time securing permission to do the famous choreographer's works.

Stevenson stood his ground with the board and reiterated his artistic vision -- a task that must have been made easier by the overtures he was receiving from San Francisco Ballet and London's Festival Ballet. He was successful in keeping control of the company, but longtime ballet-watchers say he was shaken by the ordeal.

Round two of the battle for the ballet came in 1993, with the arrival of managing director Joyce Moffatt. It was rumored that Moffatt, who had managed both the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet, was brought in to find a replacement for Stevenson. "She seized a moment," says Parker, "whether it was because she didn't know or understand Ben, or whether it was because it lined up with the agenda."

Stevenson, who has health problems ranging from sleep apnea to high cholesterol and blood pressure, wanted to take some time off between productions to go to the Betty Ford Clinic. Parker says Stevenson thought of the clinic as a glamorous place where he could take care of himself and rub elbows with the rich and famous. "I'm sure he thought if he went somewhere like that, not only would he get his weight all nice [but], you know, he would come out like Liz Taylor. Suddenly people would go, 'Oh, wow, Ben! You look fabulous!' " she says. "I think he wanted to do something for his self-esteem."  

Parker says Moffatt presented Stevenson with a choice of press releases, one that made it sound like he had AIDS and another that suggested he had an alcohol or drug problem -- neither of which was true. But the seeds of scandal were planted, and the board prevented him from teaching class and rehearsing the dancers. "Suddenly they decided he was incompetent or something," says Parker. "It's so hurtful. The things that he has gone through -- can you imagine what that would do to your health? To constantly have things come up every two or three years where it feels like you have to prove yourself."

No one knows exactly why members of the board wanted Stevenson out -- whether there was another Balanchine movement, whether they felt the company was becoming too tied to Stevenson's personality and vision, or whether they just wanted a change. But this time the dancers saved him from the ouster. Acclaimed principals Parker, Li Cunxin and Philip Broomhead reminded the board that they were at Houston Ballet because of Ben Stevenson and Ben Stevenson only. If he were no longer there, they wouldn't be, either.

But today, some dancers say, Stevenson may not have the same pull with the company. Broomhead is the only one of the original contingent left, and half of the six female principals retired last season. Houston Ballet is suddenly a very young company. And because Stevenson is away from Houston for up to 12 weeks a year -- setting his ballets on other companies, teaching, and arranging future touring engagements -- he has not made the same kind of codependent connections with the younger dancers that he had with Parker.

The time was potentially right for another takeover attempt.

In 1993 Houston Ballet experienced the first deficit in its history. The financial shortfall was attributed to a variety of causes, including low interest earned by the endowment and the death of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, whose Manon had been expected to be a box-office draw. But by 1995 that deficit had grown to more than a million dollars.

Actually, dance companies all over the country have struggled since their boom in the '60s and '70s. The Dallas Ballet and Twyla Tharp's company folded in the late '80s. American Ballet Theatre struggled in the early '90s, and the Joffrey Ballet was nearly down for the count before a move to Chicago brought it back to life. Just last year the Martha Graham Dance Company suspended operations, and the Cleveland Ballet closed its doors. Companies cited a scarcity of touring opportunities, waning government support, rising operating costs, low audience growth and tax reforms that made charitable giving less attractive. In 1990 The New York Times noted that "the hiring of administrators who can woo that selective audience is now an increasingly popular strategy in a domain once ruled exclusively by artistic directors and choreographers."

Cecil C. Conner, known among his peers as C.C., was to be that administrator for Houston Ballet. Coming from the financially burdened Joffrey in 1995, he was familiar with austerity measures. In Houston, Conner cut the number of dancers from 55 to 46, eliminated one program from the season, and negotiated a 10 percent pay cut for the orchestra. Since then, the endowment has grown from $24 million to more than $44 million, making it second in size only to the New York City Ballet's. He raised foundation giving by 140 percent to $1.5 million last year. He takes credit for using his network of touring contacts from the Joffrey to take the company to China, Hong Kong, Toronto, London, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He also led three major collaborations between Houston and other ballet companies to produce the new, full-length works Dracula, The Snow Maiden and Cleopatra. He also has managed to preside over six seasons of balanced budgets. Needless to say, Conner has developed a strong base of support on the ballet's board.

"The strategy was to put us back in the place where we built our budget based on what was a realistic anticipation of the income from the year," Conner says. "The problem was that for a few years prior to that, it had gotten to the place of 'What do we want to spend? What do we want to do? Great, we'll find the money.' "

Unlike some artistic directors, Stevenson understands the need for balanced budgets. That's why he choreographs new story ballets like Dracula and Cleopatra. Story ballets are the best-sellers for any company. Balanchine himself once remarked that all ballets should be called Swan Lake so that people would come to see them. Rather than showcasing the same repertory warhorses over and over again, Stevenson creates new ballets in the tradition of the old ones -- with equally accessible names and plotlines. Some have argued that his ballets will become classics just like the 19th-century works they are modeled on, but Stevenson, characteristically, has no such delusions of grandeur. For the box office, he says, that's why other companies do them. Incidentally, when other companies perform Stevenson's works, Houston Ballet generally reaps rental income from the costumes and sets that go along with them.  

Still, there is a natural conflict between the heads of most arts organizations. An artistic director's job is to spend money, to hire new principals, to create new ballets, to bring in world premieres. A managing director's job is to keep control of that spending. "At the end of the year, if he goes to the board and says, 'Look, I've saved all this money. We've got excess money now. We're really doing so well. I've done this. I've done that,' then his job is very well done," says Stevenson of Conner. "If I get to the end of the year and I haven't done any new ballets because I haven't been able to think…"

In fact, there were no new works from Stevenson on the 2000-2001 program, and none are slated for next season. Stevenson talks wistfully about Balanchine's longtime administrator, a man who adored the choreographer's work, protected him, and allowed him to experiment and make mistakes. But Stevenson declines to go into the details of his conflict with Conner. "I'm not going to get into a sort of scandal thing, because it's not worth it," he says. "It's not something I really want to dig up again, because it's taken me a long time to [put it behind me]."

"Actually, really," he says, as if willing it to be true, "C.C. and I are actually good friends, actually."

But the rumors circulating in the ballet community indicate that their problems went beyond the natural conflict of their job descriptions. "Sometimes I feel like he wants to direct, like he wants to be the artistic director," says soloist Mauricio Canete of Conner, "but that's not his position." Sources close to the ballet say that Conner tends to make decisions in Stevenson's absence, making connections with choreographers and coming up with future programs. Some Stevenson supporters also point out that last year's Ballet Ball, which was supposed to honor Stevenson in his 25th year with the company, was a watered-down tribute thanks to Conner, who allegedly nixed more elaborate celebrations. The chair of the ball resigned from the board after the event in February. Another board member also is resigning, in part because of the administration's mistreatment of Stevenson.

Then there is the story behind the world premiere of Stevenson's Cleopatra. It seems that Conner's close friend David Groover, with whom he shares an address, wrote the first scenario for the ballet. Stepping out of his administrator role, Conner presented Stevenson with Groover's libretto. The artistic director is said to have turned down the story in favor of his own version. Much to Stevenson's surprise, when the programs were distributed on opening night, they credited Groover.

But by far the most scandalous of the rumors is that Conner offered Stevenson's job to someone else. Up-and-coming Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, who has created the short works Indigo and Bruiser for Houston Ballet, rented Conner's guest house when he was here last summer. It was during that time that Conner reportedly quipped, "I could get you the artistic directorship here if you wanted it."

Conner was unavailable for comment on this matter, but a ballet spokeswoman says the managing director doesn't have the authority to offer the artistic director's job to anyone. As for the other rumors, Conner dismisses them with a wave of his hand. "There's an old game called Telephone," he says. "Who knows how stories get to where they get." He explains that he has to think about what the ballet is going to do several years out, while the artistic staff is often dealing with who's injured today and who can sub in for them tomorrow. To that end, Conner writes down every ballet that Stevenson mentions he wants to do. When the time comes to plan a season or a tour, he can present the artistic director with a list of works the company has recently done, Stevenson's wish list, and the combinations that he thinks will keep the box office in order.

Dancers say that Conner likes to do the same ballets again and again to get a return on his investment, and next season seems to reflect that strategy with repeats of recent works like Cleopatra, Welch's Indigo and Lila York's The Rules of the Game. New ballets can be incredibly expensive to produce. Though in each case costs were shared with other companies, Stevenson's Dracula, Snow Maiden and Cleopatra each cost $1 million to $1.2 million. By reviving them, the ballet can bring in more ticket revenue and spend nothing on new sets, costumes and choreographers' fees. All three of these ballets were revived within a year to a year and a half of their premiere dates.  

It is a fiscally conservative policy, and one that would not seem to leave the artistic director with much room to breathe. But Conner insists that programming decisions are not his, and that he is just helping by presenting lists of suggestions to Stevenson. "Was there a power struggle?" he asks. "I certainly wasn't in any power struggle."

Whether the rumors are true, they were likely heard by Stevenson. In retrospect, Lauren Anderson noticed the warning signs that led up to his resignation. Stevenson told her that he didn't have a place in the company anymore. He asked why he should even go to a particular rehearsal or meeting when they didn't really need him there. Anderson says he felt he was being shoved out.

Members of the board were also not entirely surprised by Stevenson's request to move from artistic director to artist-in- residence. Sources on the board say that Conner spoke to members informally, explaining that the move was really what Stevenson wanted and that they shouldn't protest. That is why, they say, the board approved the change in position.

The official story is that Stevenson wanted to work more in the studio and handle fewer administrative responsibilities, especially the hiring and firing of dancers -- a particularly heart-wrenching task for him. The less official story is that he was tired, frustrated and insecure from years of struggle with Conner and wanted to remove himself from the conflict. The least official story is that Stevenson wanted a dramatic action to separate his friends from his enemies, rally his supporters, and show Conner once and for all where they both stood in terms of company and community support.

Stevenson's support was clearly expressed. Anderson and principal Dominic Walsh organized a meeting with other dancers late the next night after a technical rehearsal. Stevenson is described by dancers as an inspiring teacher and a demanding director, a career-maker and a career-breaker, a magician and a monster, a father figure and a child. But when it looked like his artistic vision might not continue to lead the company, they put any differences they might have had with Stevenson aside. They also had to realize that new directors often bring in their own dancers, and without Stevenson, their jobs were not all secure. The dancers pleaded with the director and the board. Some even threatened not to sign new contracts if they weren't signing with Stevenson.

Community members flooded his voice-mail box with messages. People stopped him in the Kroger near the ballet academy and at Tony Mandola's, where he ate lunch. Before, he says, people would have said, "Oh, there's that fat guy from the ballet." Now they were telling him how much they liked his work, how important he was to the company.

Stevenson went back to the executive committee and agreed to finish out the last two years of his contract. The only problem: Stevenson's assistant Trinidad Vives already had been promoted to acting artistic director. Stevenson, Vives and the executive committee came to an agreement. The two would serve as co-artistic directors. But just before the arrangement was supposed to go into effect, there was another power shift. "The thing is," Stevenson says, "I am artistic director and Trinidad is associate director." She will be his right-hand woman and will handle some of the artistic decisions while he is traveling, but he is still the ultimate authority.

Stevenson rallied his troops. Houston Ballet faced the dance future without Stevenson and flinched. And some say that Conner's position within the company has suffered from the bad publicity. But in a way, the plan backfired. Succession is now on the ballet community's mind, and the fact that Stevenson brought up the idea of his own retirement might provide his detractors with another chance to push him into it.

Transition times offer as much danger as opportunity for ballet companies. From the look of the dancers to the technique taught at the academy, from the eclectic repertory to Stevenson's own classical choreography, Houston Ballet has borne the mark of Ben Stevenson for 25 years. And on balance, his artistic direction has been remarkably successful, taking the company from a regional concern to international recognition. What direction will the company take when he does resign or retire? Will the board choose a successor with his or her own choreographic vision? Or will it choose someone to carry the Stevenson torch? Will the company stagnate, crater or explode into something bigger and better than ever?  

Perhaps the most significant succession in American ballet history came with Balanchine's death. Even though Balanchine handpicked disciple Peter Martins to follow him as ballet-master-in-chief, critics seem to think Martins can do no right. When he creates or brings in new works, he is demonized for not doing Balanchine. When he does Balanchine, writers like venerable New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce lament that "the ballets have had their hearts torn out."

Stevenson's shoes certainly will not be as difficult to fill as Balanchine's, but there don't seem to be a lot of very large feet out there ready to fill them. Stanton Welch's name has been batted around, but some of the dancers complain that he can be difficult to work with and would change the company too much. Associate artistic director Trinidad Vives hopes to use her new title to develop her abilities over the next two years and position herself as a serious candidate if Stevenson does leave then. But Vives is not a choreographer, and while some companies -- notably Boston Ballet -- are moving toward non- choreographing artistic directors, it doesn't jibe with the history and current mandate of Houston Ballet.

Trey McIntyre is perhaps the most interesting prospect. A student of the Houston Ballet Academy and later a corps de ballet member here, he apprenticed as a choreographer under Stevenson, and currently serves as the company's choreographic associate and as the resident choreographer for the Oregon Ballet Theatre. He has produced works for companies around the country and in Europe and South America. On the London tour in April, his jubilant neoclassical short work Second Before the Ground won rave reviews, while Stevenson's more old-fashioned Cleopatra was panned. McIntyre says he is turning now to full-length ballets, such as the Peter Pan he is creating for Houston Ballet's next season. He is also entertaining offers of artistic directorships from other companies. Still, he is young and inexperienced, and as the dancers point out, not Ben.

The 65-year-old Stevenson does not dismiss talk of his own retirement, though he hopes it will be an active one. Perhaps he'll limit his purview to the academy, or teach in China, or do a Broadway show. The director isn't speculating on the time frame, though. Now that the dust has settled, he's feeling more secure than he has in a long time. "You want to feel that you're a part of it and not just some person on the outside trying to get back in," Stevenson says. "But I'm back in, and I'm enjoying it."

He is clearly enjoying teaching a recent summer class of the academy's upper-level students. He strolls casually through the rows of perfect bodies in maroon leotards, touching them, talking to them, placing them in the correct positions. He tells them to "dazzle," to dance rather than exercise. He breaks into a silly waltz, then a tango, then a campy bit from Sweet Charity. He tells jokes: "Don't go back! You're from the Ukraine -- it's a long way to go back."

The dancers struggle -- their faces hard and their bodies strained -- to please him, the man who will later determine whether they get into the company, the man who might make their careers. There are clearly a few favorites. Some he looks right in the eyes and whispers fast, intense, almost angry words. With others, he takes their hands gingerly, giving them confidence, security, strength, perhaps even love. The attention is carefully, selectively given. It is no doubt inspirational to the insecure students who receive it. How lucky they must feel to have caught the director's attention, how hard they will have to work to live up to his expectations, to be perfect.

But Stevenson himself ignores the fourth wall that is a mirror. He ignores the dance teachers from around the country who have come to watch him work. He ignores the archival video cameraman who is following him around the room. He ignores the reporter who is writing down everything he says. He ignores his problems with C.C. Conner. He ignores the power struggles that have nearly pushed him out of the organization.

Here, he knows all the steps. Here, he doesn't worry about whether he is liked or disliked. Here, he is comfortable.

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