Dance-Maker Stanton Welch Celebrates Ten Years at Houston Ballet

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.

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Adam Castaneda
Contact: Adam Castaneda