Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy exemplifies how strong technique and a well-rounded dance education successfully merge. Since Stanton Welch's arrival as artistic director in 2003 and Shelly Power's appointment as associate director in 2004, the Academy's programs have expanded dramatically and the school has been taken to a new level.
It has always been known for producing talented dancers. More than half of Houston Ballet's current members trained at the Academy. Still, this year proved especially notable for members of Houston Ballet II, the pre-professional company made up of dancers from the highest level in the school. In addition to their usual schedule of classes and rehearsals, HBII members traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, and Beijing, China.
On Friday, April 20 and Saturday, April 21, they appear on more familiar ground during the Academy's Spring Showcase. Now an annual event, the showcase highlights students' talent for excelling in classical and contemporary works.
The Spring Showcase also features Welch's exhilarating contemporary choreography, including The Long and Winding Road, set to Peter Breiner's unusual baroque orchestration of Beatles music, and The Chairman Dances, a mesmerizing ballet inspired by the John Adams opera, Nixon in China. Each year the showcase emphasizes the students' versatile training.
This year's program includes familiar favorites, such as excerpts from Ben Stevenson's landmark classic, The Sleeping Beauty, and Welch's Studies, which displays the artistry of dancers throughout all levels of the school. Dancers as young as 8 years old perform in Studies, and the dance progresses to include members of the school's top levels.
"It has certainly been our ambition to grow the school," says Welch. "Shelly and the staff's hard work have made that happen. Performing has been great for the students in that it makes them better dancers."
Houston Ballet rarely gets to go abroad, but because of Houston Ballet II's compact size - 28 dancers, as opposed to the regular company's 50 - its dancers may hit the road on relatively short notice. Invitations to perform are arriving regularly.
"I love hearing from other directors how good our dancers are," says Welch. "People search them out - like the Ivy League of the dance world."
When the Academy began in 1955, its founders had the foresight to link the company with the school, and the training arm of the organization acquired a reputation equal to that of the company under artistic director emeritus Ben Stevenson. During the school's history, numerous students have competed successfully in the International Ballet Competition, the Prix de Lausanne and other high profile awards, often earning gold, silver or bronze awards and gaining international attention for their artistry. Each year, hundreds of students from around the world flock to the Academy's summer program.
Connor Walsh trained at the Harid Conservatory and the Kirov Academy of Ballet, and came to Houston on a scholarship in 2001. After a year, he joined HBII.
"I had never been in a school affiliated with a company before," Walsh says, "and it was my biggest preparation for getting into the company. Going to the school changed my life, it turned my career around. Before I came here I was not necessarily aimless, but I was just going from day to day. When I came here I was so wide-eyed and open for information. Being part of HBII really launched my career."
Walsh climbed through the ranks of the school, and excelled so quickly that weeks before his contract was to begin as an apprentice with Houston Ballet, he was offered a contract as a corps member instead. In less than two years, he was promoted to soloist.
HBII helps the artistic staff discover and nurture talent.
"If we see someone who is good but is not quite ready or who is too young, then we take them into HBII," Welch says. "Without this performance experience, if we give them an apprenticeship, they never get cast. We bring them in and give them a good idea of us. A lot of our best people have come through the school."
Students are accepted into the Academy's pre-professional division as young as age 7, and by the time they enter the school's fourth level, they are training a minimum of three days a week. These upper levels take classes in technique, pointe, pas de deux, men's, character and music.
Under Power's direction, the Academy has placed a greater emphasis on health, nutrition and the overall well-being of a dancer, adding to its reputation as a supportive place to train. She is determined to share her belief that the discipline and skills acquired through ballet training can transfer to all areas of life.
This year Power and her staff have introduced a more comprehensive evaluation process that updates teachers, students and parents on a dancer's progress, and the school has also launched a new program for students aged 7 to 14 that does not require an audition.
Upcoming projects include a new Texas-themed performance by HB II, combining excerpts from Welch's full-length ballet Tales of Texas with other choreography. Plans include taking this to Houston-area schools as part of the Academy's outreach program.
Whether performing in their home city or halfway across the world, members of Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy and HBII learn what life is really like as a professional dancer and share that with enthusiastic audiences.
"Including performances is a key piece in all of this," Power says, "and we have enough support throughout the organization to reach our goal of doing them. If the opportunity is out there, we will make it happen."
Christie Taylor covers ballet for The Irish Times and other European and U.S. publications.