It's hard to believe, but Houston Ballet celebrates its 35th birthday next year. Stanton Welch, the newly inaugurated artistic director of Houston Ballet, possesses the rare ability to look backwards and forwards with equal clarity. Honoring the heritage of Houston Ballet and the legacy of the art form, in his mind, strengthens the search for new and unique ways for dance to progress into the 21st century. The 2004-2005 Houston Ballet season, which is the first complete year of programming chosen exclusively by Welch, provides the blueprint for his dream of the future.
"I very much want to show that we are a classical company with a great tradition and also a company that plans to explore and venture into all kinds of choreography and new styles of dance," says Welch. And quite frankly, the guy knows how to put on a show‹with something to please anyone and everyone. If any doubts remain, consider this fact: Welch will present eleven new works next season (an unprecedented number for Houston Ballet), as well as beloved full-length and bread-and-butter repertory ballets.
The 35th anniversary season kicks off on September 9 with a novel and overdue idea‹a program of all female choreographers, titled "Women@Art." The evening includes world premieres by Julia Adam and Australian Natalie Weir, both established artists to be reckoned with. Also on the triple bill, Lila York's Celts, set to traditional and contemporary Celtic music, promises to be a rousing closer.
To Welch, the idea of promoting young choreographers with potential is a quintessential element in strengthening a ballet company's identity. "In dance history, all the places that became prominent‹the Russian companies, Royal Danish Ballet, Balanchine's company‹were recognized because they were the homes of new creations. They had wonderful successes and failures, but everything was constantly new and exciting," says Welch. "I think Houston Ballet is very much in that process, and I'd like to think that's what we're aiming to achieve."
To fully mine the experimental process, Welch is bringing back the Cullen Series to highlight new choreographic talent next season. On the program, commencing on October 28, Welch has commissioned new ballets by Adrian Burnett, resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet, and Matjash Mrozewski, a Canadian choreographer whose theatrical work Welch describes as "a mixture of Pina Bausch and ballet." Welch adds that the Cullen Series is "a laboratory for contemporary ideas, styles, and concepts that allows the choreographers to feel that they have the support to really be risky."
The full-length ballets are placed throughout the season: Trey McIntyre's revival of Peter Pan in September, The Nutcracker from the end of November through December, and artistic director emeritus Ben Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet in March. Welch knows the importance of these works for both the audiences and the dancers. Fans crave the magical stories and lush scores of composers like Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, and the dancers grow and develop by performing challenging classical works.
In what would normally be the doldrums of winter, Welch has planned the company's 35th anniversary gala on December 3 with a program of fireworks to showcase the dancers in contemporary works and crackerjack showpieces. The winter repertory program, starting February 24, comprises a triple bill of works intended to display the company's famous versatility. For that program, Welch will choreograph a world premiere to Rachmaninoff's music that will highlight the individuality, athleticism, and artistry of Houston's extraordinary crop of dancers. Suite en Blanc, a highly underrated ballet seldom seen in America, choreographed by Serge Lifar in 1943, is a neoclassical tutu ballet with wit and class. And the program concludes with Christopher Bruce's Rooster, a sizzling dance with music by‹-need we say more‹the Rolling Stones.
The spring repertory program, beginning May 26, features the first Houston Ballet work by the hippest of contemporary choreographers, Mark Morris. Sandpaper Ballet, a wickedly whimsical Morris piece, utilizes a large ensemble of dancers, costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, and a kooky score by Leroy Anderson. (Remember "The Syncopated Clock"?) Concluding the program is James Kudelka's spectacular rendition of Stravinsky's The Firebird with costumes by Santo Loquasto.
In June, Houston Ballet's season ends on a sublime note with the company premiere of artistic associate Maina Gielgud's critically lauded production of the romantic classic Giselle. "She's reduced the whole ballet to a no-fat story," explains Welch. "There's nothing extra or indulgent, but it's very emotional."
Welch knows that Houston Ballet is now at a turning point in its position in American dance. "For our 35th anniversary, we are making the investment to create works that stand the test of time," says Welch. "And those works will be born here." What better way to celebrate?