The Turning Point
It was the biggest performance in the short life of the Easy Credit Theater, and choreographer Richie Hubscher knew it. On a hot evening in July 1998, thousands of invitation-only arts patrons and new downtowners milled about the Rice Hotel's recently renovated Crystal Ballroom, sipping Absolut martinis and celebrating the launch of the Art Guys' corporate-sponsorship spoof and national-media darling, The Suits Project. The Art Guys posed for pictures in their logo-ridden suits, partygoers in pink bubble-wrap dresses flirted loudly, men in neckties shouted down to Texas Avenue from the second-floor veranda, Cool Films screened a video that traced the history of the project, bone-thin Page Parkes models strutted down the runway, and everyone was beautifully drunk, on the scene if not the alcohol. Then Hubscher stole the show.
The music started early, and quietly. When the performers finally heard it, Hubscher slid out onto the slippery makeshift stage and tried to catch up. The dozen other dancers, many of whom had never performed in front of an audience before, followed him. They watched his feet and tried to imitate him, they bumped into each other, they fell down. It wasn't pretty, but that wasn't the point.
Wearing a blue polyester Western suit and holding his one-year-old baby, Martha, on his hip, No tsu oH owner Jim Pirtle sang an emotional rendition of the Sinatra classic "My Way," while the Easy Credit Theater prepared for the ultimate fashion statement. Hubscher and his troupe stripped off their ghostly thrift-store garb and took to the catwalk themselves, naked but for some white body makeup and small triangles of white tape to cover their genitals. Two women took their positions, standing eye to eye at the end of the runway, wielding razor blades. Slowly they sliced the lines of a wedding gown and a groom's lapel into the soft flesh of each other's chests. The blood made bright red rivers through the cakey white makeup and eventually cloaked their bare breasts. The martini sippers stopped chattering about "what art is" in mid-sentence, craning their necks in morbid curiosity, as if they had glimpsed a broken body in a car accident.
The sense of emergency wasn't entirely unwarranted. It seems that in the world of scarification, a razor blade is not a razor blade is not a razor blade. The proper blades leave thin, weltlike patterns that go away in a couple of weeks. The improper blades can leave you with serious blood loss. For this particular performance, the woman sent to the convenience store to buy the blades was not well versed in the art. Combine heavy-duty razor blades meant for taking the scruff off a man's neck with sweat, nerves, adrenaline and a sensitive, blood-vessel-ridden part of a woman's body, and you've got a recipe for disaster. Once the performance high wore off and the pain set in, the dancer with the wedding-gown cuts had to go to the emergency room to have her chest and neck sewn back up. The groom didn't go to the hospital, and she's got the thick scar to prove it.
Hubscher knows that they were lucky there were no more serious consequences, but he doesn't regret the performance. "What can you do?" he asks. "Things like that are bound to happen. You can't stop life from happening. And you don't want to." If art is a reflection of life, and life is what's happening while you're making other plans, then accidents are art.
In nearly every dance performed in his little studio space carved out of the rubble and refuse above No tsu oH, a dog parks itself center stage and barks at length at either the audience or the dancers, an oblivious baby dressed only in diapers barely dodges a dancer's step, the electricity goes out, a mirror breaks or a "dancer," who has never seen the inside of a ballet class before, forgets the difference between his left and his right foot. To Hubscher, the distractions are all part of the show.
But they weren't always part of his show. No tsu oH may be an easy walk from the Wortham Center, but the coffee shop is worlds away from the grand theater where Hubscher performed until just a few years ago in the perfect predictability of the corps de Houston Ballet. For 15 years, he was well rehearsed and impeccably trained in bright, white, state-of-the-art studios with high ceilings and springy floors. For 15 years, he performed in elaborate costumes on hermetically sealed sets where not even a stray fake snowflake is allowed to fall before its time. For 15 years, he looked for his time, the time when it would be his turn, the time when he would be a star in this picture-perfect world of classical ballet.
"Boys, you better start building your muscles," Hubscher's mother used to tell Richie and his twin brother, Taylor, "because all you're going to be able to do for a living is dig ditches."
She wasn't being mean, just realistic. She worked the 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift as a cocktail waitress; Richie's father sat motionless in front of the television after a long day on his feet at the post office. They were more concerned with making the rent each month than with the potential of the two youngest of their eight children. Not that Hubscher would have shown much potential anyway.
He's so dyslexic that he couldn't read three-letter words at the age of 15. He didn't know the months of the year until he was 18. Even today Pirtle has to put Hubscher's home phone number on speed dial at No tsu oH so that Hubscher won't infuriate unlucky residents with a barrage of misdials.
After an unsuccessful day at school, sleeping at the back of the class or getting suspended for beating up one of his tormentors, Hubscher would play by himself in an alley near his family's home in West Palm Beach, Florida. When the alley got boring, he started climbing the buildings that lined it. When the climbing got boring, he started leaping from rooftop to rooftop. When it seemed as if he had exhausted the alley playground's potential, he heard someone playing the piano.
He followed the music to the high window of a rinky-dink pink dance studio, and he watched, mostly because he knew he wasn't supposed to be there. He'd never seen pretty older girls in leotards, he'd never heard classical music, and perhaps most important, he'd never seen an adult devote so much time and attention to her charges. He liked the teacher's voice, the way it counted out the rhythm of the music and gave gentle instruction. He went back nearly every afternoon.
When Hubscher was 13, his father died of lung cancer. Richie had never been close to him; the elder Hubscher hadn't seen the use of his youngest son's interest in frivolous, artsy things. Almost exactly a year later, his mother died, too, of a brain aneurysm caused by a car accident with a drunk driver. "In a strange way," he says with no perceptible emotion, "it was the best thing that could have happened to me." The family had money now, from his father's life insurance policy and VA benefits, and his then-23-year-old sister, Donna, took guardianship of Richie and his twin brother. The yawning hole left by his parents' passing was temporarily boarded over with artistic possibilities. Donna remembered Richie plunking out songs on a hotel lobby piano and disappearing in the afternoons to watch dance classes. She enrolled him in a liberal arts high school, plus private art, piano and dance lessons, before he even thought to ask.
He was the only boy in the rinky-dink pink dance school, and his bulky underwear wrinkled his tights; he didn't know what a dance belt was. Then he saw The Turning Point. The cheesy Shirley MacLaine-Anne Bancroft movie from the late '70s cleared up a lot of issues for a boy in ballet class, not the least of which was the dance belt. More important, it was Mikhail Baryshnikov's film debut. The young Russian leaped like the earth had no gravity, turned pirouettes faster than you could count them, drank like a man and always got the leading lady -- in fact, the cad got several of them in quick succession. Baryshnikov was cool; Hubscher wanted to be just like him. The night after they saw the movie, Donna found him wearing leg warmers in the backyard, stretching on the chain-link fence.
To Hubscher, this was not just idol worship. He had begun to realize that dancing just might be his chance to get out of digging ditches, or going to clown college like his twin brother. "You can only go so far being a clown," Richie says in all seriousness. "They're the lowest on the totem pole in the circus." Either way, Hubscher knew he wasn't going to make it in the real world of public school and desk jobs. "Whatever life was supposed to be, I wasn't going to make it in that."
So when he was 17, he moved into an apartment next door to Ballet Florida, some 40 minutes away from Donna and West Palm. "I wanted to sculpt my body, I wanted to dance to beautiful music, I wanted to partner beautiful women, I wanted to be the guy in white tights," he remembers. He worked hard at it. The principal of the academy used to get angry with him about the electric bills: Hubscher came to the school two hours before class to stretch under the warm theater lights.
Then, Ben Stevenson came to town. The round Englishman had attracted the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn to perform in his very first production and had staged works for American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey. Now, he was the artistic director of the respected Houston Ballet, and he was teaching a master class at Ballet Florida. Hubscher wasn't yet good enough to take Stevenson's class, so he stood on his tiptoes, peering through a high, narrow window for two and a half hours. Again, it was the teacher who captured the Peeping Tom's attention.
"Ben's kind of magical," Hubscher says. "When he teaches, you can feel he loves it, even when he's making a face, picking his nose or calling you an asshole." The fascination seems to have been mutual. Stevenson noticed those darting, dark little eyes at the window during his class, and when Hubscher later sneaked backstage to see the company, Stevenson offered him a scholarship to the Houston Ballet Academy having never seen him dance.
Hubscher and his instructors decided he wasn't ready to leave the nest that year, but when the Houston Ballet returned the following summer, he took Stevenson up on his offer. Unfortunately, because of scheduling conflicts, he never showed up for classes. The third time was a charm, even if Stevenson's final proposal was anything but charming.
Hubscher imitates his mentor with a fey British accent, flicks of the wrist and a pinched expression of disgust: "You're not as good as you were last year," he quotes. "You won't be in the highest class."
The Ballet wasn't easy for Hubscher. He hated the uniform: a white crewneck T-shirt, black tights, white socks and ballet slippers. "I don't look sexy in this at all," he thought. "This isn't The Turning Point . This is everybody line up in a perfect line and do things on the same count." Hubscher had been the star of his class in Florida; here they wondered if he would make it in the company. Hubscher thought he had a cool arabesque; the Ballet staff told him, "That's not an arabesque. We don't know what that is." Hubscher wanted to be Baryshnikov; Stevenson made him play the fat parent in The Nutcracker . "Goddamn it," he says, remembering. "I have a beautiful body. I wanted to be the guy in the white tights dancing with the pretty girl."
But Stevenson puts it this way: "If Mickey Rooney had wanted to be Lawrence Olivier, he wouldn't have had a career, but that doesn't mean that Mickey Rooney wasn't a fabulous talent." Richie Hubscher, it seems, was the Mickey Rooney of the Houston Ballet. But it took him a while to realize that.
Hubscher would never be the Ballet's Lawrence Olivier, but he certainly wasn't suited for its entry-level job, the corps de ballet. In the corps, the point is to blend nicely into a whole. The dancers practice raising their arms to the exact same height, tilting their heads at the exact same angle, leaping in the exact same arc. They wear the exact same costumes, often with headgear that further disguises their individuality. And still Hubscher stood out. He added little flourishes to keep things fresh, and he'd get so excited about dancing that he'd accidentally jump up when the rest of the corps was coming down. He was, as Stevenson puts it, "too free."
The ironic thing was that Hubscher wasn't free at all. Freedom, in the Ballet, comes with being the star. It's only then that you can jump as high as you like, turn as many times as you can, distinguish yourself from others, have a personality, be an artist.
Hubscher thought about his new position at the bottom of the totem pole, like a clown in the circus, while he was sitting in the back of an ale house near his Montrose apartment drinking Long Island iced teas with lots of sugar. He had been without parents since he was 14, but somehow he was so sheltered and naive about certain things that he didn't know what hard liquor tasted like. He thought a Long Island was just a special kind of iced tea. Each morning he woke up with a terrible headache. He blamed it on the cicadas outside his window, the horrible Houston heat, the strange petrochemical smell in the air and the rigorous training of the Ballet. Finally one of the other dancers clued him in by marveling at his ability to put away the drink. "After I stopped drinking," Hubscher says with an innocent, straight face, "things got better."
His relationship with Stevenson helped smooth the transition to the Ballet as well. "His art is to create dancers," says Hubscher. "When he looks at a dancer, he's looking at somebody he's going to sculpt and fill and do something wonderful for." But there was a special sort of bond between the director, who had no children, and this particular dancer, who had no father. Stevenson, like a proud papa, noticed Hubscher had artistic skills beyond dancing. Once, when he was house-sitting for Stevenson (a perk at the Ballet: nice house, full fridge, cable TV, pocket money), he accidentally left some of his drawings behind. Stevenson was so impressed that he asked him to design the set for his new ballet, Cast Out.
The director wasn't always so kind. "With Ben it was always a double-edged sword," remembers Hubscher. "One minute he was making you feel like shit, and the next he was compassionate and understanding." But Hubscher doesn't fault him at all. "He might have been stern, tough, even vicious, but it was always in my best interest. He never failed me." Even in telling him he would never be the next Baryshnikov. In fact, Hubscher says that if Stevenson ever asked him to come back, he probably would. "It was like a fairy tale," he says. "The most indelible thing about the Ballet is you felt like a god, or an angel."
Hubscher's seminal and signature choreographic work is anything but heavenly. It came to him when he was painting in his garage and listening to a tape a friend from the Ballet had given him. It was Tom Waits's Bone Machine , and it would change everything.
The jangly, skeletal sounds, the plodding rhythm, the raspy, gravelly melodies, the lyrics that told stories both tragic and true, they released in the classically trained ballet dancer something not at all classical. When "Murder in the Red Barn" played, Hubscher picked up a machete -- he was already wearing the appropriate overalls and straw cowboy hat. He twirled the machete, pirouetted around it, stomped, jumped, fell to the floor, crawled. It was real, ugly, dangerous, gritty, sexy, animalistic and dark.
"I don't know if I would call it dark," says Hubscher's sister Donna. "It's life." His life. When their father was in the late stages of his cancer, Donna remembers, she saw him through a cracked door with his hands on his head, somehow trying to stop the pain by rolling his skull in every possible direction. Richie must have witnessed it too, because Donna saw the same movement performed with the same feeling in one of Hubscher's dances. She doesn't think Richie ever dealt with the loss of their parents; he appropriated the movement without even realizing it. "I think Richie had to be an artist, because if he had not been an artist, God help us all," she says. "I'm afraid those things he expresses through his art, he might have turned on himself or on others."
Hubscher wanted to choreograph a dance to Bone Machine for the Jewish Community Center's 1993 choreographers' showcase, but he didn't have any dancers. So he asked his then-girlfriend, Cheryl Pierce, and her friend Stephe Drawn. Neither of them had any dance experience, but Hubscher thought their lack of experience would give the piece a sense of unpolished pedestrianism, of striving desperation. The music, he thought, called for that feeling anyway, and it's hard to get ballet dancers to look pedestrian or desperate no matter how hard they try.
It was a big gamble. And they realized it as they walked into a JCC full of "real dance companies doing their Martha Graham and Balanchine." Hubscher and friends were wearing thrift-store street clothes and garish sad-clown makeup and "not at all looking like a dance group." When the lights came up, they still didn't look like a dance group, and that was the best part about it. They slogged around like they were all skin and bones with no muscle control, and Hubscher and Pierce performed possibly the sweetest and saddest pas de deux that you'll ever see. It was haggard and cynical but still, somehow, childlike and naive. "She was 15 years old," warbled Waits's recorded voice, "and she'd never seen the ocean. She climbed into a van, with a vagabond." Pierce fell slack against Hubscher's body while he supported her with one arm around her back, and they shifted from side to side in a pathetic slow dance.
The gamble paid off. They got a standing ovation, and Chronicle critic Ann Holmes called the "existential or post-nuclear dance" the most intriguing of the evening. Most of the words that Hubscher regularly uses to describe his work seem to have come from that review: "alienating," "existential," "nihilistic," "perversely comic," "post-nuclear." It's no wonder he likes them. They're big words, interesting words, words that some would be hard-pressed to define. Most important, given the context, they're good words. Hubscher got more ink in one night as a choreographer than he had in 15 years as a member of the corps de ballet. In that review, he was a star.
Some six months later he gave Stevenson and the rest of the Houston Ballet artistic staff an ultimatum: He wanted to be promoted to soloist or be given a choreographic fellowship, or he would leave the company. They weren't interested. Ben Stevenson was, in the end, a director with a company to run, not a father with a child to encourage. Richie Hubscher was still not going to make it in "the system." And at the ancient age of 35, he finally gave up on being Baryshnikov.
"It's like he took all the years of ballet training, where you're taught to look like you're flying, and he took the wings off," says former dancer Rebekah French. "Now, it's all about falling and crawling."
Hubscher works with dancers who have little to no predisposition for flight. Even in the hazy half-light of No tsu oH, it's clear they are not ballerinas. Their small bellies hang down, their rear ends stick out, their shoulders slump, their hands are stiff, and their feet can't seem to decide between a parallel or a turned-out position. In rehearsal they stare intently at their bodies in the old, distorted mirrors leaned against the wall of vintage shoeboxes. Ignoring the rhythm of a slow, plaintive song coming from the record player, they concentrate on the sound of Hubscher's hypnotic counting. The clock on the wall incorrectly says 12; it always feels like midnight in this place, and sometimes they work that late.
Hubscher stands in front of them dragging on a cigarette, his hair disheveled from a very recent nap and the vintage suit jacket that he used as a blanket slung over his shoulder. He's explaining the fundamentals of a pirouette, in intricate detail and with infinite patience. When someone finally makes it around, he thinks it's beautiful, no matter how jerky the movement, how loud the landing, how improper the placement of the knee. He thinks you should think it's beautiful too. Within a month even the newest of these dancers will perform before an audience. In Hubscher's mind, it's not technique that will be important on stage, it's fearlessness. And they have no fear of falling -- on stage or off. They've already fallen through life's cracks. "Everybody who's hung around here very long has a heinous story," says dancer Stephanie Jones. "They had parents who beat them, or they didn't have parents at all, or" She trails off as if the list of atrocities were endless.
Rebekah French didn't meet her father until she was 13. He was a hippie who was more concerned with watching a bug on a flower in his California garden than with any real-life obligations, like children. She grew up with her mother, poor, near Lake Houston. When she wanted to move out of the house and go to college to study dance, she did the thing that poor girls who want to be dancers and have father issues do in Houston: She stripped. She did drugs to get through the job, and then she did the job to get more money for drugs. The cocaine went up her nose and into her arm. She overdosed once, turning blue. She became a dominatrix to try to turn the tables on the men in the clubs who inspected her like a piece of meat. There, she made even more money -- once, $1,000 in a night. She bought more drugs and the things that she'd always wanted as a little girl, like a big vanity. It was hard to strip and dominate and take ballet class at the same time. High heels pushed her butt out and made her back sway; in ballet, she had to tuck her butt under and hold her back straight. She had her feet in two different worlds; something had to give.
Hubscher told her that she didn't need to make money to go to college, because she didn't need to go to college. "You learn to dance by dancing," he said. He was authoritative, and she listened to him. "Discipline me, train me, teach me -- raise me, even," she thought. For Hubscher, the tables had most definitely turned. The student had become the instructor; the child looking for a father had become a father figure himself.
French moved into a glorified closet at No tsu oH, earning her keep by scrubbing dishes in the coffee shop and scooping up dog shit on the dance floor. She didn't have any money, and she liked it that way. "No tsu oH was my A.A., my support system, for a while," she says. Plus, she got to dance.
But the thing about father figures is that their authority is never absolute, particularly for those prone to rebellion. When Hubscher launched into a cruel Stevenson-esque tirade against the dancers, French called him "Adolph Baryshnikov." When she realized he wasn't perfect, she criticized his choreography: "He's angry and he's very sexual, so it's always about death and fucking -- in that order," she launches a zinger and then laughs. "I've explored the pelvic grind in every possible way that I ever can." When she gave him a letter delineating her grievances and suggestions for improvement, Hubscher ripped it up in front of her. French quit to do her own work, much like Hubscher had done several years before.
All this drama leads to the criticism, even from within the company, that Hubscher's troupe is more about therapy than art. But as Hubscher puts it, "Creating art is a therapeutic thing." And besides, "What's theater without a little drama?"
Performed by a constantly mutating cast of characters, Hubscher's pieces -- inspired by bordellos, vintage clothes, Y2K and whatever book he has stumbled onto lately -- aren't always as successful as Bone Machine . Jim Pirtle chalks it up to the open-door policy of a place like No tsu oH and the Easy Credit Theater, where anyone can get a cup of coffee and damn near anyone can become a dancer (although Hubscher does draw the line at the toothless coffee shop regular who has been known to put on his own little dance performances and alternately claims to be Raquel Welch and Nadia Comaneci). "Really fantastic things can happen, and really boring things can happen," Pirtle says. "That's the pot-luck nature of tolerance."
But when the pieces do work, when it's 3 a.m. and you've found a spot on one of the more comfortable and less pee-stained couches, and the live music has a strong rhythm, and the light from a bare bulb casts a shadow on the ghoulishly made-up faces, and the baby happens across the stage at just the right moment, and Hubscher's solo has a touch of Baryshnikov bravura, and the pas de deux has a passion that hints at backstage romance, and a new dancer stumbles a little on the crooked, 100-year-old floor without even thinking to cover the mistake, and a blue-collar worker from the Chronicle presses sits next to a Houston Ballet dancer and yells, "Right on, Richie!" Then, it's a magical experience.
"In a weird way," Hubscher says, "if Ben had given me the white tights, I would have never explored my imagination to this degree. I would have been stuck playing the prince."
"There's as much freedom in going to hell as in going to heaven," says French. There's as much happiness in rolling around in the dirt upstairs at No tsu oH as there is in posing on a beautiful stage at the Wortham Center. Maybe more.
For information on the Easy Credit Theater's performances, call No tsu oH at (713)222-0443.E-mail Lauren Kern at lauren.kern@ houstonpress.com.
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