For 50 years Houston Ballet's dancers have leaped, lifted and toed their way through one program after another. Sometimes they've even had to pack their bags — not to head to a foreign country to perform but just across town when a hurricane wiped out their home stage. They've accomplished all this with grace, strength and beauty.
All that will be on stage this Friday night, as part of the annual Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance when the ballet celebrates its Golden Anniversary, the dancing and choreography showing off what they have been as well as what they continue to become. Selections in Act I will include a world premiere of Barre with choreography by Claudio Muñoz to represent the formation of the school; Paquita reflecting the company's first season at Miller Outdoor Theatre; Peer Gynt, Ben Stevenson's first original concept and choreography; and the present company's Sylvia. This will be accompanied by projections by Wendall K. Harrington, who did the projections on The Nutcracker.
"The idea is that the first portion of the program would take us through the history of the Houston ballet in an artistic, balletic way," Artistic Director Stanton Welch says. "So you start with the formation of the ballet school here with that slowly growing into a small company and then they do Giselle, they perform with guest artists coming in and then that company forms, They go through building their classical repertoire into [former Artistic Director] James Clouser into [former Artistic Director] Ben Stevenson into myself and then we finish that act with a new piece that's created on the soloists and corps de ballet, the up and coming people within the organization to show the future."
That new piece at the end of Act I will be Welch's new work Tarantella, which he knew he wanted to be a celebration of their accomplishments. (A tarantella is a group of folk dances, usually, and in this case, accompanied by tambourines.)
"It's a very celebratory great fun piece," he says. "It's like a challenge and a celebration and an explosion of classical ballet and fast, hard steps and this great great piece of music. I wanted something that was an explosion because you'd gone through all this repertoire and there's an excitement building as the act unfolds. You see pas de deux and solos and parts of history and you needed to finish with something that really explosive and you can't hear that tarentella and not feel the energy in the music and then it also lent itself to give all 16 to 18 people in their moment in the sun."
Dignitaries on hand for the event (which also includes a number of activities throughout the weekend) will include the two former Houston Ballet artistic directors as well as former Principal dancers Mirelle Hassenboehler and Lauren Anderson.
In Act II, the very popular Reflections by Justin Peck will be performed followed by Welch's Nosotros in Act III, which is something he created early in his career for the Houston Ballet. "It was created as a star-studded evening of all the great dancers in the company. It's full of all the principals and soloists and showcases how rich our talent is. It's beautiful music and very well known."
A mixed rep program is a way to showcase dancers who are usually not center stage in the company's story ballets. And even though they haven't had lead roles, Welch says he knows what they can do very well. "All these people who are in Tarantella I have choreographed on for many years," he says. "Just not on the main stage, on opening night, on Jubilee. Now it's their turn, in front, with no one else on stage, in front of all of our audience. And the Jubilee audience is special because it's our community. As a young dancer to be alone even if it's just for ten seconds, feels like an enormous big deal."
Asked why people should buy tickets to Jubilee, Welch says:
"I think to celebrate Houston and to celebrate how unique this city is and that we have such a strong arts community. It is all across the board in art and that includes medicine and architecture and landscaping and cooking. There's something about the energy of this city that is kind of like what New York was like in the '70s or San Francisco might have been like in the '90s but they've sort of become too expensive and rich that they can't support the art. Art needs not to live in a rich place but in a creative place.
"If all the artists have to live a three hour drive from downtown Houston then we don’t have art. But we're not like that. Something about the people of this city understands that and they have built these incredible buildings through the city to support the arts. Other cities with as big a population and as rich a population don't invest in their arts and don’t then develop their own culture and their own flavor.
"Houston is the unique flavor of the South. It's not what you expect. I’ve never had had someone come here that doesn't leave with their mind completely altered about what Houston is. I like very much that the dancers live a life where they can go home and they can afford houses, have cars, have a life but they also have this great facility. Sometime you have to compromise life for work and here they sort of can sit together. "
The Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 6 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $35 to $200.