After more than a year away from live, in-person performances, Houston Ballet today announces its 2021-22 season, ready to welcome pandemic-weary audiences back to the Wortham stage to see the company present the same upper level work its dancers have been known for in seasons past, according to Artistic Director Stanton Welch.
"We’ve kept ourselves in condition the entire time by keeping the company employed and working," Welch said. "Other than the actual bruising and the soreness from being partnered and all that kind of thing which we've actually started now, I think that come Rep 1 and Nutcracker and into the following season, we'll all be artistically at the high caliber we're used to."
Houston Ballet Executive Director Jim Nelson echoed that when he explained their thinking when they set out to program the upcoming season.
"I think the important thing for everyone was no more uncertainty. To the point that we could deliver on as this is going to be our season, these are going to be our dates. We wanted to send that message of 'Come back to the theater. This is what we you can expect. Instead of 'We hope to. We plan to.' We wanted to present things that did not hinge on bringing an artist or choreographer from Europe because at this point we don't know for sure when those choreographers, designers and artists will be able to travel freely. So we really concentrated on things that had a very high certainty we could present without having to change our programming."
It's a lineup that blends new choreography (one ballet by Principal dancer Melody Mennite, the other by Principal dancer Connor Walsh) with the tried and true (Madame Butterfly, Sylvia and, of course, The Nutcracker) Houston Ballet is aiming to engage audience members with a certain member of comfort.
Some of the season selections had been planned for the prior COVID-interrupted season, Welch said. "Melody's piece was a ballet that we had planned to do. Once it started to feel like the vaccinations are rolling out pretty smoothly, it felt great to give both Connor and Melody who both had the opportunity taken from them due to COVID to get the chance to bring that back.
"For us with the full lengths we wanted to bring back stuff that was really comfortable and familiar for our dancers and for the audience; something that felt for our first time back on stage for such a long time, something that we knew so well," Welch said. "Sylvia was created on these dancers. It's in their bodies; it's part of them. And Butterfly we worked on for many, many years and Yuriko [Kajiya] who is in her prime right now and is such a beautiful Butterfly, it just felt right.
"And then one of the other programs was the program we actually dress rehearsed the night before we had COVID," Welch said. That included the choreography of: "ONE/end/ONE" by Jorma Elo, "Hush" by Christopher Bruce, and the world premiere of "Pretty Things" by Trey McIntyre.
When he began programming for the start of the 2021-22 season, Welch said he was cautious, not completely sure how long dancers could perform without a break, but he feels now that they are more that ready for their first Jubilee performance, although the program will be shorter than in the past.
As far as financial expectations go, Executive Director Nelson said they are tempering their expectations initially in terms of audience size and notes that they are only planning to run one program in September instead of the usual two. They will offer the remaining five subscription programs February through June. "We did that after [Hurricane] Harvey when we had our entire system in February through June."
In this case they wanted to get everyone back sooner in the season, knowing the initial run is going to be a test, Nelson said. "We have the ability to accommodate all of our subscribers in those performances," adding that depending on the guidance they get from the city, they will be able to determine whether there will be any restrictions for the fall date, without which they would be able to open up for more ticket sales.
He said they expect but by the end of September that COVID-required health restrictions will probably still call for masks but not social distancing.
"COVID on top of Harvey is a real blow," Nelson acknowledged. "It will take time to rebuild; there’s no question about that. If you look back to Harvey and you see Harvey followed by an additional four years of disruptions it has taken a toll on subscriber base. People get tired of canceled performances, moved performances. We have had a challenge with our subscriber base. That will take a time to rebuild. We have been fortunate; we have a very strong board, a very dedicated funding community and the ballet has been managed in a pretty conservative way so we were not in crisis pre-COVID."
Nelson is a former professional ballet dancer himself, which he says helps him in his present business-side role.
"I always look back to my experience as a dancer as a great advantage because when you have to pare back or simplify or make some cuts you know what is so important to the artists of the company and to the field. That gives me a real common language with Stanton when we're talking about how do we approach yet another crisis so that's been a real help."
He make it clear that going forward, audience participation is a must, if Houston is going to continue to be an arts center.
"The theaters may be open and the dancers may be back on stage. That will go for theater, that will go for opera. This has been a challenge that none of us have had to endure. We really need our public and our supporters to continue to attend the theater, support the company so that we keep first tier arts organizations really healthy in Houston and Texas. It's a really fragile ecosystem and without people coming back in a big way you run the risk of not keeping our arts groups at the same standard that we've been so fortunate to rise to."
During the months without live performances, the ballet was able to raise $5 million that went toward a crisis relief fund to support its dancers and staff, Nelson said. "We did have layoffs as well as everyone but we were able to maintain all of our contractural obligations from the shutdown through the end of last season and then we have had probably one of the strongest contracts in the country for our dancers and we are getting to the place where we've got most everyone back to work now."
"We plan to present a fully-produced Nutcracker like people have always seen," Nelson said.
"The nice thing about Nutcracker that I look forward to this year, is that it's a great piece for us to come back to," Welch said. "It has a lot of parts for people and they're quite challenging but none of them are exhausting with the exception of Clara. It has characters that you know and understand. So I feel like if I picked a ballet to really get us back into our 30-shows-in-three-weeks kind of mentality, Nutcracker really is good like this."
During the months away from in-person performances, the ballet like other arts groups, has made several virtual programs featuring its dancers. Welch said he not only expects but hopes this will continue after the return to the live stage. "For all of us, we have to now stay virtual in some capacity. We have to keep an internet presence. We have to create online. We have to offer the people who don't feel comfortable a chance to still see us. I really believe that if we turn our back on what we learned during this time it would have been a waste of time. There's no reason Houston Ballet can't have a digital performance in Darwin, Australia. Let's do it. We can go anywhere."
Dancers have been rehearsing with masks and are tested for COVID three times a week, a testing that will increase to daily once they are performing live without masks, Welch said. Once 90 percent of the company is vaccinated, he said, he believes they'll be able to move to non-mask classes and rehearsals. "We need to get through the summer. Come August that will be a lot clearer."
Welch thinks that most ballet company personnel changes following the COVID hiatus won't happen immediately. "Because I think everybody went into the break very much with the determination of coming back and continuing. But the reality of the fact it was a year and a half, nearly two years before we're fully back. This has been a long time. Your body might be sore. It's hard to reimagine how hard we worked before. I keep thinking 'Do we really spend all day standing up dancing?' So I think they'll be some change, not immediate."
Asked why a return to live performance is so important, Welch responded:
"The connection to an audience and how important that is for live performance. I've really enjoyed watching lots of things on YouTube and the internet but it is very different from spontaneous, live performing. That moment on stage, that moment that ballerina does Nutcracker, that show will never be repeated like that again. No artist pulls off the same exact thing every time.
"We've all been sitting alone watching and talking to each other through phones and iPads, but the reality is when you're there looking at them in person, the dancers dance better, the orchestra plays better. We need to be socially connected again like that."
The 2021-2022 season programming lineup announcement from Houston Ballet:
Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance*
September 30 – October 3, 2021
As integral to Houston’s art scene as its namesake and endower, the Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance is an annual celebration of the range of talent within Houston Ballet’s professional company. These one-of-a-kind performances throughout Houston Ballet’s rich history have included an array of beloved moments from iconic ballets alongside world premiere works. This year’s glorious return to the stage will undoubtedly be a can’t-miss event.
Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds
Choreographer: George Balanchine | Music: Gabriel Fauré/ Igor Stravinsky/ Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky
February 24 – March 6, 2022
Houston Ballet’s 2021-2022 season glimmers with George Balanchine’s Jewels. Each of the three acts in this full-length ballet embody their namesake jewel through ambience and the unique musical stylings of their corresponding composer. Balanchine drew inspiration from Claude Arpels’ visionary jewelry designs to create his French evocative Emeralds set to Gabriel Fauré, delightfully witty Rubies that epitomizes his collaboration with Igor Stravinsky and his illustrious Diamonds set to Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. The distinct moods of each of these precious gems nods to Balanchine’s own spirit and influences. This stunning work of art is welcomed back to the Wortham Theater Center stage for a spring awakening that’s sure to sparkle.
Madame Butterfly (1995)
Choreographer: Stanton Welch AM | Music: Giacomo Puccini, arranged by John Lanchbery
March 10-20, 2022
Stanton Welch’s internationally acclaimed Madame Butterfly reemerges to captivate audiences once more. With a magnificent score by Giacomo Puccini, in an arrangement by John Lanchbery, Madame Butterfly tells the tragic love story of a beautiful Geisha, Cio-Cio San, and a handsome American naval lieutenant stationed in Nagaski, Pinkerton. The narration for Welch's ballet is split between Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton as they experience the merging of traditions and cultures in nineteenth-century Japan for the first time. In support of Houston Ballet’s commitment to an inclusive artform, its works reflecting Asian culture are in alliance with Final Bow for Yellow Face, an organization working to create more positive and nuanced representations of Asians in ballet.
ONE/end/ONE (2011) | Choreographer: Jorma Elo | Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Hush (2006) | Choreographer: Christopher Bruce | Music: Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma
Pretty Things (2022) | Choreographer: Trey McIntyre | Music: David Bowie
May 20-29, 2022
After the cancellation of its much-anticipated opening night in 2020, this trio of Houston-born works finally gets to take centerstage, including the world premiere of Pretty Things! The program showcases Houston Ballet’s continued tradition of supporting the world’s most respected choreographers, featuring works by Jorma Elo, Christopher Bruce and Trey McIntyre. Elo’s ONE|end|ONE reflects the dance maker’s quirky and unexpected movements to create an atmosphere of playfulness. Bruce’s Hush is a comic and moving celebration of life set to the music of Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. McIntyre’s Pretty Things, set to music by David Bowie, features the men of Houston Ballet and explores peacocking behavior among male dancers. Experience this wide collection of choreographic talent, all in one blockbuster performance.
World Premiere | Choreographer: Melody Mennite
World Premiere | Choreographer: Connor Walsh
Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra (2014) | Choreographer: Stanton Welch AM | Music: Benjamin Britten
June 2-12, 2022
Known for innovation and forward thinking, Houston Ballet fosters artists both on and offstage. Originals showcases two world premieres by Houston Ballet Principal Dancers Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh, along with a returning Houston Ballet original work by Stanton Welch. Mennite celebrates 20 years with the Company with a new commission for Houston Ballet, and Walsh debuts his first solo work for the Company after much anticipation. Welch’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is set to Benjamin Britten’s iconic work of the same title, a score created by Britten as a way to educate youth on the art of the orchestra. Created on Houston Ballet in 2014, this huge, collaborative piece features the entire Company and the talented musicians of the Houston Ballet Orchestra while demonstrating art’s place in our culture and city.
Choreographer: Stanton Welch AM | Music: Leo Delibes
June 16-26, 2022
After two glorious and critically acclaimed premieres in Houston and Sydney, Stanton Welch’s Sylvia makes a fierce return to the Wortham Theater Center stage for story ballet bliss. Welch’s Sylvia re-envisions the classic tale of the strong mythological heroine huntress, Sylvia, to emphasize three powerful leading ladies. Laced with heroism and humor, the ballet follows the journeys of Sylvia, the demi-god, Artemis, the Olympian, and Psyche, the mortal, as each woman is torn between her duty and her desires. Audiences are transformed to another world through internationally renowned ballet and opera designer Jerome Kaplan’s gorgeous costumes and scenic designs, accompanied by Wendall K. Harrington projections that breathe new life into elements of each act. Equally matching the exquisitely ethereal visions onstage, the ballet is set to Léo Delibes’ famous score, used in full splendor for Welch’s version.
The add-on performances for the 2021-2022 season programming include:
The Nutcracker (2016)
Choreographer: Stanton Welch AM | Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Nov. 26 – Dec. 26, 2021
Bring the family back to the theater to share the joy of Clara’s magical journey to the Kingdom of Sweets this holiday season! Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker is a grand spectacular of opulence and one of the most splendid versions of this holiday classic ever staged. With hundreds of roles and a myriad of exquisite details that will leave you discovering something new in every performance, Welch’s The Nutcracker is a positively joyous treat for ballet lovers of all ages. Rejoice in the return of this time-honored tradition!
Academy Spring Showcase
April 29-30, 2022
Houston Ballet Academy is the training ground for some of the world’s most elite dancers and choreographers, making the Academy Spring Showcase a first look at the bright future of ballet. These annual performances feature iconic moments from beloved ballets as well as new works created by leading choreographers such as Stanton Welch. Be there for the debuts of the next generation of professional dancers.
Season subscriptions are on sale now online at houstonballet.org. Or call 713-227-2787.