Final Curtain

As if any more proof was required, the Houston Ballet's current revival of Don Quixote shows just how consistent a company artistic director Ben Stevenson has crafted. When Stevenson's version of Cervantes's famous story premiered two years ago, much was made of how marvelously the then-new pairing of Lauren Anderson and Carlos Acosta worked, how efficiently Stevenson kept the action moving, how striking scenic designer Thomas Boyd's harbor-town set was. And to review the ballet today, all you have to do is trot out the same encomiums, only kicked up a notch or two in recognition of how well the dancers have settled into their roles. Two years ago, you could still see some of the dancers feeling their way through their parts; now, though, they look like they're wearing a comfortable old coat.

The Ballet has shaken the dust off Quixote in part to help prepare for taking it up to Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center this fall, where it's likely to receive another round of praise. But for long-time Houston Ballet fans, this Quixote, fine as it may be, is more than a touch bittersweet, because it marks the final performances of principal dancer Rachel Jonell Beard, a 19-year veteran who will retire after next Saturday's performance.

Beard came to the Houston Ballet as a 17-year-old; at the time, she was a scholarship student at the School of American Ballet, which feeds dancers to the New York City Ballet. She was scheduled to return to New York, and probable corps work with the NYCB, when she took a few classes with Ben Stevenson and decided she liked his way of doing things better than the way things were done in New York.

Beard was the second young ballerina in two years Stevenson had snaked away from George Balanchine's company, then unquestionably the premier ballet troupe in America. The first had been Janie Parker, and while Beard never received the notice given Parker (nor, for that matter, did any other Houston Ballet dancer), signing her up was in some ways just as important as signing up the woman who'd go on to become the Ballet's most visible symbol. A strong ballet company, as more than one artistic director has learned, can't be built on a single dancer; what's needed is a corps full of potential stars. By courting Beard, Stevenson made it clear that he knew just that.

In all but a handful of companies, Beard herself would have been the main star. Not that she's been particularly invisible with the Houston Ballet. She made a splash by winning a bronze medal in the 1982 International Ballet Competition, and not long after joining the company, while still a corps dancer, she was called to step into the leading role in Etudes on two days' notice. She did, and earned five curtain calls for her troubles.

Beard's strength has always been her technical skill and flawless technique; it's also been her endurance. As she notes with a laugh, another of the company's senior dancers, Timothy O'Keefe, once told her that she "must have sold my soul to the devil, because I never, ever had any major injuries." That luck ran out this year, though, when she first had an injury to one knee, then the other. By the time all was said and done, she had lost completely the padding in her left knee, so that each movement was bone on bone.

Treatment has helped alleviate the problem, but as Beard notes, the ailment effectively called an end to her career. The astounding thing is that rather than simply call it quits when her knee was diagnosed, she decided to finish the Ballet's current season. Equally intriguing is that if you didn't know Beard was injured, you'd be hard-pressed to tell it by the way she danced the leading part of Kitri in Don Quixote last Sunday. She may not leap as high as she once did, but in terms of technique and precision, it was almost impossible to find fault in Beard's dancing. Maybe it was the adrenaline high of being in the spotlight, maybe it was just a dogged determination not to give in, but whatever the cause, Beard put on a bravura show. If her final performance this Saturday is similarly electric, Beard will have made her point: In a company as deep with talent as the Houston Ballet she may not be as missed as she would be elsewhere -- but she also won't be forgotten.

Don Quixote will play through June 22 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. 227-2787.