When you're a teenager, moving to a new town is always hard. But it was harder still for Kelly Myernick, who at 14 relocated from Colorado to Houston to study with Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy. She attended class all day at Lamar High School, practiced dance in the evenings and lived in a dormitory with five girls, one chaperone and one bathroom. "It was fun and sometimes hell," she says. Then she got a back injury.
"At Lamar I was in these hard-as-hell classes," she says, "and I had to stand in the back of the room with a back brace. I was like, 'Oh, God, I'm hurt, and this sucks!' "
Looking back, Myernick, now 23, thinks the injury was due to stress. But she stuck it out, progressing through the Houston Ballet ranks, from the academy to an apprenticeship to the corps de ballet in 2000. Last August, she was called in for a meeting with Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet artistic director.
"They ended up taking us in the board room with the head of every department in the Houston Ballet and my old teachers and everything, and they said, 'We're happy with your work and we're promoting you.' And...I cried."
Myernick was taken aback. "You have this idea of the kind of dancer you'll be when you get there, and maybe people see you as that, but you don't," she says.
Welch recalls noticing Myernick during her early days, when, as a visiting choreographer, he did Bruiser with the company. "I first saw Kelly when she was an apprentice," he says. "I immediately noticed her and her athleticism and her ability to move -- in a unique way, but also very closely to what I was asking for...She always seemed like an old soul, and an old performing soul. She has something that's very individual. Choreographers are always drawn to dancers like that."
Myernick's not one of those ballerinas who've been headed for the tutu since birth. Growing up, she thought of ballet in the same way she thought of piano or soccer lessons. Then, after encouragement from a teacher, she tried out for a competitive summer program at the Boston Ballet. "I was ten and had just started wearing point shoes," Myernick says. "Somehow I got in, and my parents were like, 'Shit.' "
The Myernicks realized they might have a real ballerina on their hands. Later, she says, "My parents were brave enough to let me come [to Houston] because my dad was a professional soccer player -- he's a coach now -- so he understood that kind of ambition and the need to take a less-than-traditional route to achieve what you need to achieve."
Along that route, Myernick has seen lots of changes at Houston Ballet -- the biggest, of course, being the departure of longtime artistic director Ben Stevenson and the arrival of Welch in the 2003-2004 season. Welch brought with him a whole new set of expectations. "In terms of technique," says Myernick, "our classes were so much harder, and we just rehearsed so much more..." Especially at the beginning, she says, "It was rough, just really hard...It was the first time I ever thought, 'Maybe I'm not cut out for this'...But everyone's soooo much stronger as a result."
The company has received heaps of praise recently for its athleticism and technique, but the challenges continue. Remembering her difficult part in Suite en Blanc at the recent repertory program "Rock, Roll & Tutus," Myernick says, "That was cruel -- no, not cruel, I can't say that."
Still, Myernick, who seems to prefer contemporary roles -- her favorite is European Girl in Christopher Bruce's Ghost Dances -- likes being pushed. "Stanton has given me a variety of roles to challenge me, like dramatic roles...and classical stuff, I don't feel very confident in classical...and he knows that, and so he'll give me things that scare me a little bit." Case in point: her role as Lady Capulet in the recent performance of Ben Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet, which entailed beating her chest and throwing herself around on stage. "The first time I did it in the studio, I was shaking," says Myernick.
Despite some initial opposition to Welch (two dancers followed Stevenson to Dallas, and principal Dominic Walsh left the company to work full-time with his Dominic Walsh Dance Theater), Myernick and the company have responded to him, and so have audiences. Subscription sales fell short of expectations during his first year but jumped from 6,050 subscribers to 7,993 for 2005.
Houston Ballet has been making an effort to be more accessible, especially to young people who don't have deep pockets, by closing off the balconies during some shows and offering less expensive tickets closer to the stage. And Welch has been trying to reach outside the typical ballet audience by programming less traditional works. They've included Cline Time, set to the music of Patsy Cline; Celts, inspired by Irish step-dancing; and Rooster, a tribute to the Rolling Stones.
Lots of Houston arts organizations have had to cut back in the wake of 9/11, Tropical Storm Allison and the fall of Enron, but Houston Ballet has remained stable since the mid-'90s. The company, trying to endure the oil bust, moved into the Wortham Theater in 1987. "We expanded too fast and therefore tightened our belts sooner than anybody else," says managing director Cecil C. Conner.
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Sharing space with Houston Grand Opera has its benefits for Myernick. "You can't just watch ballet to be a good performer," she says. "I sneak into the opera here sometimes. There's this little spot that I watch from...in the shadows, and it's really cool. You can go in your sweats and eat Cheetos and watch Renée Fleming."
Yup, that's Kate from Madame Butterfly, the Snow Queen from The Nutcracker and the Autumn Fairy from Cinderella talking. But irreverent as she is, Myernick is in awe of the ballet.
"It's just kind of like you're in heaven," she says. "You don't want to be anywhere else in the world. You feel you're enjoying the moment with a whole theater of people too, and that moment is only happening there, now. It's this deep feeling. You get completely lost in these pieces."
Nine years have passed since her move from Colorado. Myernick is now a Houstonian in her own right. "I like it here," she says. "It's comfy." But the ballerina who's learning to go beyond her comfort zone eventually might make a go of it elsewhere. And when the time comes, she'll know. "I've decided that when my car breaks down," she says, "I'm going to leave Houston."