Live and In Person: Houston Ballet Hits the Boards at Miller Outdoor Theatre

Principals Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
Principals Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox/ Courtesy of Houston Ballet
It's something that Connor Walsh, principal dancer for Houston Ballet almost couldn't believe would finally happen. But now that he and other company members have pinched themselves several times over, it has — as he puts it — kicked them all into gear.

Following an opening performance from the Houston Ballet Orchestra, Houston Ballet will leap back into live action on the Miller Outdoor Theatre stage on May 7 and 8 when it presents Houston Ballet Reignited with  excerpts from some of its most iconic ballets.

Walsh will be performing with longtime dancing partner Principal Karina Gonzalez, in a scene from Romeo and Juliet as choreographed by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch to Sergei Prokofiev's evocative score.

Adding special poignancy to the performance is the knowledge that given the relatively short number of years that a professional dancer has to take to the stage, the year away from live performance because of COVID-19 protocols constitutes a huge portion of what-might-have-beens.

"I think a dancer’s career is a very short career.  Not that dancers take it for granted but I think they will treasure their moments on stage; they will perform with enthusiasm and commitment probably more than ever before. Now they realize how precious this is," Walsh said.

"Once performing arts really start to be free again to do what they do, I think they will come roaring back because of the determination of the dancers and choreographers and creators of all sorts to enjoy and use their craft to the fullest.  I just think that’s magnified a little bit toward the dancer whose career is like an athlete, it's such a short thing.  It's already a precious career. To have this pause only makes it more precious to us."

Romeo and Juliet has a lot of built-in appeal, Walsh said. "There's the music and the narrative. There's a stunning pas de deux that Stanton has created," Walsh said.

Dancing to Romeo and Juliet brings with it a sense of security, Walsh said, especially since the roles were choreographed with the two Houston Ballet principals in mind.  "There's a confidence in dancing with each other that will be fantastic. To see something that emotional, to see two dancers on stage dancing with abandonment with raw emotions that come with the Romero and Juliet pas de deux I think will be a breath of fresh air for any performing arts lover, to see that sort of physical emotion played out on stage."

Once they rehearse at Miller they'll need to work out logistics for then and for the two performances, Walsh said. "For safety reasons there's also going to have to be not only choreography onstage but choreography backstage because dancing at Miller's quite tight. Normally dancers are kind of crowded in the wings and the crew's kind of crowded. So there's going to have to be some sort of planning to make sure that everyone is able to stay socially distanced."

Socially distancing is a big part of the reason that while the ballet orchestra is on the program, it won't be accompanying the dancers. "We're so proud to have such a wonderful orchestra. They'll be playing by themselves. I don't think we're at the place where we feel comfortable jamming a bunch of musicians into the pit blowing wind instruments into each other's faces." 

Twenty-one strings musicians will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” [A Little Night Music] with Ermanno Florio, Music Director and Principal Conductor for Houston Ballet, will conduct both performances.

"We’ve been doing our classwork and we’ve been doing a lot of fitness work. We've got great athletic trainers with Houston Methodist and we've also got some fitness trainers that work with the academy and the company," Walsh said. .

"We've upped our testing with Houston Methodist to guarantee each other's safety — we have to be strong but we have all these other considerations to work out. We're all being very responsible. The first step was getting our bodies ready and the next step was trying to get the coordination ready and now it's getting the trust with our bodies again and also building stamina."

"We're dancing and rehearsing in masks and that presents its own challenges."

Since the start of the pandemic, being able to come in an practice really helped the dancers a lot, Walsh said.
"There were periods of time earlier in pandemic we couldn't and I think that hard stop that everyone experienced was really, really challenging. That lasted for a long time and then trying to find self-motivation also was a real struggle.

"As we  we slowly ramped back up we were still doing it in such an isolated way, I was reminded how much I depend on my peers, my colleagues to push me, to inspire me. So now it's great to be in a place — we're still not working full capacity; there's not 60 dancers in a room running full length ballets — but we're working in groups of ten at a time and we feed each other, we inspire each other, we push each other and encourage each other. That sense of community has been a helpful bump for all of us."

"I think, I hope so many people have been reminded of the value of performing arts," Walsh said. "You can’t compare it or replace it with anything else. The human connection is clearly something that's been talked about.  I love film. I love podcasts. I love all those things. But to have the intimacy of watching performers on stage and the spontaneity that goes with that, regardless whether it's dance or opera, or theater or music, I think we’re all craving for that connection."

Tickets for Houston Ballet Reignited will be available at 9 a.m. Friday, April 30. Miller Outdoor Theatre has initiated a new online ticketing system with a limit of four seats per person for seats in the covered area. Seating will be socially distanced and masks required. No tickets are necessary for The Hill where attendees will be sectioned into pods with a maximum of 10 and masks are required. Free.
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