Houston Ballet released a blockbuster this spring when it unveiled Artistic Director Stanton Welch's new Swan Lake. While other companies might rest on their laurels, Houston Ballet's 2006-07 season promises even more drama, storytelling, and laughter.
"Next season we have our Oscar contenders," Welch says. "We have our love story, our horror and our romantic comedy." In addition to full-length ballets such as Welch's Madame Butterfly and Ben Stevenson's Dracula and Coppélia, next season includes choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, Hans van Manen, Glen Tetley, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Bruce and Jirì Kylián‹some of the best choreographers who have ever worked in classical ballet.
Welch orchestrated the line-up, and for the first time since taking over the directorship nearly four years ago, he now focuses almost exclusively on directing and choreographing in Houston. "Before, I was doing two or three ballets here each season, plus five or six somewhere else," Welch says. "Now I'm primarily here, working with people who know me." A number of his ballets appear next year.
The season opens with "Simple Elegance" (Sept. 7-17), which includes two Houston Ballet premieres and a world premiere by Welch. His new dance promises to be the most classical of the three, set to Benjamin Britten's Soirée Musicale and Matinee Musicale with dancers in tutus. Less traditional are Hans van Manen's Grosse Fuge, created in 1971, and Glen Tetley's Voluntaries, created in 1973. Those ballets add to the company's diverse repertoire, and are as timeless now as they were when originally created.
Back by popular demand, Stevenson's Dracula (Sept. 21-Oct.1) offers a ballet rendition of Bram Stoker's story. Replete with capes, exploding chandeliers and ghost-like dancers, this ballet was called "ingenious stage magic" by The New York Times. Stevenson set the entire story in a Transylvanian village, and when the ballet premiered in 1997 it commemorated the novel's 100th anniversary. Since then the production has toured around the world.
Stevenson's version of The Nutcracker (Nov. 24-Dec. 26) recounts Clara's journey through the Kingdom of Sweets next holiday season. Those looking for a different holiday option may try the increasingly popular Jubilee of Dance (Dec. 1), showcasing Houston Ballet dancers in Welch's Carmina Burana.
In the spring, "Life and Laughter" (Feb. 22-March 4) combines three lighthearted, contemporary ballets - all Houston Ballet premieres. Welch's comic, classical work Tu Tu, pits women in golden Klimt-inspired tutus against men in trunks (the dance was created for San Francisco Ballet in 2003), and Christopher Bruce's Sergeant Early's Dream offers dancing to English, Irish and American folk music. Last on the program is Jerome Robbins' The Concert‹one of the American choreographer's most popular works and "truly the world's funniest ballet," according to Welch. "Houston audiences here learned a lot about slapstick from Ben, and I know they will adore it."
Later in the spring, "Fragile Beauty" (March 8-18) again pays homage to Welch's talent, featuring Red Earth, which he made for The Australian Ballet to music by indigenous composer Peter Sculthorpe, and Madame Butterfly, a quintessential love story chronicling a geisha girl's romance with an American naval officer. In Welch's rendition of Butterfly, silk kimonos and twirling parasols set the stage for the tale of bittersweet love, and geisha girl Cio Cio San dances as daintily as the flowers on the cherry blossom trees.
In a completely different vein, "Animal Magnetism" (May 24-June 3) features Christopher Wheeldon's unusual interpretation of Carnival of the Animals, in which a young boy, Oliver, gets locked into New York's Museum of Natural History one night, embarking on a raucous adventure. He meets everything from dancing dinosaur bones to an elephantine nurse in a ballet that encourages dancers to draw on their acting skills. "I felt like Carnival was the right fit because we have such a strong acting company," says Welch, who began negotiations early with Wheeldon‹who now acts as resident choreographer for New York City Ballet. Enthusiastic ballet fans will also be thrilled to see on this program Jirì Kylián's Svadebka (Russian for "wedding"), since the last Kylián ballet to enter Houston Ballet's collection was interrupted by last year's hurricane. Rounding out the trio is Welch's Clear, commissioned in 2001 by American Ballet Theatre.
Houston Ballet closes its 2006-2007 season with Stevenson's Coppélia, the story of a doll so charmingly lifelike she captures the heart of a young villager named Franz. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, Franz nearly loses his true love, until comic circumstances bring them back together. Coppélia requires dramatic skill, technique and charm, and like so many of the other ballets on next year's bill, it is sure to contribute to another award-winning year at Houston Ballet.
Christie Taylor covers ballet for The Irish Times and other U.S. and European publications.