The Houston Ballet Takes Its Marie On The Road

THIS Stanton Welchs Marie (Fote and Artists) (p. Francis).JPG
Photo courtesy Houston Ballet

There's quite a buzz in New Orleans today about the Houston Ballet's performance there of Marie. The story of the ill-fated French queen Marie Antoinette, the ballet is having its first performance outside of Houston in New Orleans's Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts (its grand re-opening post-Katrina).

Hair Balls spoke with C.C. Conner, Jr., managing director for the Houston Ballet just minutes after the caravan of truck and buses started the ride to New Orleans yesterday, moving props and costumes and some 70 dancers. The show is expected to be quite an artistic success, but financially the best the Houston Ballet can hope to do is break even.

Here in Houston HB spent two years in planning and design, then six weeks in rehearsal and performance. "Six weeks of our overall budget is a couple of million dollars. If we had sold every show of Marie, at full price, every seat, we would have made $940,000 in income," Conner tells us. "Doing [the show] in other places simply enhances the reputation of the Houston Ballet and Houston.

"One piece of our mission is to create new choreography and move the art form forward, so we build [creating new works]  into our budget. Our current budget is $18 million, and about 5% of that is for producing new works. Our budget for Marie was $890,000 for just for scenery and costumes and the fees to the designers. The costume budget alone with $585,000, for 900 individual costume pieces."

As with every other performing arts company that depends on corporate sponsorships and individual donations, the country's current financial woes affect the Houston Ballet. "We plan our seasons out a year, almost two ahead so in some ways we're locked into what we have planned. We're not like the manufacturer who can instantly quit producing widgets. It takes us a year and a half to slow the cycle down. That's a difficulty when you have quick, almost overnight, changes in the economy. But we had some inkling of the coming troubles two years ago.

"We're looking very carefully at what we can do. The budget for next year is slightly less than it is this [year]. We're not expanding. Over the next two seasons we aren't doing bigger productions or spending more money on productions. We've had times when we had fewer dancers because of financial situations, but right now we have only three less dancers than we've had at our largest."

Much of the success of Marie rested on principle dancer Melody Herrera's slim shoulders. And she was, by most accounts, brilliant. There was this little review in The New York Times that wasn't so flattering. "There's an old saying 'There's no bad publicity,'" Connor tells us laughing. "And interestingly while The New York Times review was not very good, it was incredible placement and an huge picture. So you get some recognition of the show even if people don't read the details."

Marie is the type of role that make dancers into stars. Does Conner ever worry Herrera will become such a big star that Houston Ballet might not be able to afford her in a few years? (Yes, there are bidding wars for ballerinas.)

"Quite frankly ballet dancers don't make the kind of money that opera singers do, so you don't really have that issue," he tells us. "But sometimes they leave to go to another company, like the Royal Ballet. Our concern then is keeping them from going to one of the few companies in the world that are more prestigious than Houston Ballet. There actually aren't too many. We keep, hopefully, dancers like Melody because the artistic director creates things for people so that they like being here and want to be here. So really creating this role on Melody is the reward she gets for staying at the Houston Ballet."

The opening curtain for today's performance of Marie is just hours away. Melody Herrera and the rest of the cast aren't, we're sure, thinking about money -- not the millions it took to get the production mounted, not the take on ticket sales. We're equally sure C.C. Conner is.

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