Yuriko Kajiya in Houston Ballet's Minneapolis production of Swan Lake.EXPAND
Yuriko Kajiya in Houston Ballet's Minneapolis production of Swan Lake.
Photo courtesy of Houston Ballet

Stanton Welch on Houston Ballet Taking It on The Road With Play and Swan Lake Yet to Come

A year from now, when they look back at this season, members of the Houston Ballet may not believe what they have done. But they can't think about that now, says Artistic Director Stanton Welch. They have to keep moving forward with the mixed rep program Play and a crescendo ending Swan Lake still to do. And the hope that by the start of the  next season with The Nutcracker they will be back in their home at the Wortham Center next November.

Principal dancer Yuriko Kajiya will lead the cast in Swan Lake at Odette/Odile in what has been described as a breakout role for her. Asked why they were returning to Swan Lake last performed by the Houston Ballet in 2014 and why Kajiya, Welch responded:

"Swan Lake is definitely one of the big classics for any ballet company. Returning every four or three years is a good time span. Young dancers should see Swan Lake two to three times in their childhood through to their adolescence. For our audiences it's certainly something that has been popular.

"Yuriko has a beautiful classical technique. She was trained in China. She has this exquisite line and sense of balance. I really felt it would suit her tremendously and it does.  We previewed Swan Lake in Minneapolis earlier this year on tour  and that was where Yuriko did her first performance in this production. She's really a very special ballerina and has the ability to hover, to balance."

When Welch choreographed his version of Swan Lake, the company as a whole was used a whole lot more. Asked why he did this, Welch said, "In most Swan Lake productions, the swans,  the princesses and Odette/Odille dance a great deal so the women were always well taken care of in the ballet. I think my focus was to get the men an equivalent amount of dancing; they have a lot of stage time and they had not been given steps. I tried to up that ante and I thought it worked really well in Act I where you start the action with the hunt scene and it's all very masculine energy and masculine dancing and then you finish that act with all the women.

"I really like that yin and yang that balance between the two sexes. It helps tell the story. And even the character of Odette/Odille having more characterization I think is important.   Audiences today expect a lot from the story and they learn a lot quickly. You want to give them a lot of information.  

Getting back to this season in general, Welch said, "We were on the road the entire time. Every ballet had some level of adjustment. In some cases we changed entirely what the program was and made them specifically for that venue."

"We're about to open a new program at the GRB and that's all
commissioned work [complete with poetry readings] made in reaction to the storm. It's not really about the storm. It's about survival, it's about hope; it's about recovery.

And besides the changes on stage, including there often not being an orchestra pit at the new venues, just being on the road meant additional time and effort had to be set aside to load up, drive to a venue, unload and set up and then do everything in the reverse just a few days later, he said.

And there was all re-dos they had to do. "It was exhausting. Every poster we made, every ticket we had printed, the information, the extent of what we had to alter," Welch said. Not to mention contacting any guest artists and telling them about the changes.

Welch is proud of the fact that "We got every program in. We made sure our audiences had a lot of things to do and see. We adapted our mixed rep to suit the different venues."

Even Swan Lake will have to undergo a few adjustments to be performed at Jones Hall, he said. "Swan Lake is a very big ballet and Jones Hall is a great theater but it's a bit different than the Wortham. I've changed some of the patterns for the women, even changed the set a little bit. Instead of feeling like we're not delivering our best by re-imagining it, I think that we are making it best, that each program has risen to that occasion.

"I think for the whole organization, everything we had planned changed and we had weeks of notice, nothing more and during that we had to plan our next season," Welch said. "It's been a very  exhausting, interesting time and I think for the company it's really been a sign of strength and I say that with pride. I think we all need a good sleep after Nutcracker.

"We’ll look back in a year or so and be n awe of what happened but right now we're still kind of in survival mode."

Asked what his favorite productions were from the last year, Welch finally settled on Mayerling and The Nutcracker.

"Mayerling was such a big achievement for the company. Had it not been consumed by Harvey it would have been a real milestone. We were the first American company to do it and we did it really well and we had multiple casts; that really was a huge achievement. And I think picking up The Nutcracker and moving it to different theaters was also extraordinary for everybody."

The mixed rep performances of Play are scheduled for June 8-10 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida De Las Americas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $40-$120.

Performances of Swan Lake are scheduled for June 23 through July 1 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturdays; 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25-$196.

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