Since taking the artistic reins of Houston Ballet in 2003, Stanton Welch has swiftly shaped the company into a fine-tuned instrument, well suited to the 21st century. His tendency to zip around the globe at the bequest of those who commission new ballets, along with his combination of hip tastes and mature artistry, belie the fact that he is still only 37 years old. Fortunately for Houston audiences (and the dancers), the prolific choreographer/director still keeps his priorities on his home company by creating and reviving his vast repertoire of ballets.
From March 8-18, Houston Ballet will present a double bill of Welch's famous production of Madame Butterfly (now performed by numerous ballet companies worldwide), coupled with the Houston Ballet premiere of Red Earth, which he choreographed in 1996 for the Australian Ballet. Red Earth is a particularly meaningful ballet for Welch, because it explores the challenges that the early settlers of his home country, Australia, faced in their quest to tame the outback. Originally commissioned for a program featuring all-Australian artists, Welch chose to depict the dramatic scenario in the manner of a broad, abstract painting.
"It's about people arriving in a land that is extraordinarily hostile," says Welch. "Prisoners from Europe were taken there and set loose in a place where basically every natural thing kills you — from the snakes and sharks and crocodiles to the hard, crusty land that you can barely dig your fingernails into."
Many of the settlers died or went insane, but in the end, the survivors developed a love for and understanding of the land and how to become Australian. At the ballet's premiere, Jaqueline Pascoe of Dance Australia wrote, "Red Earth is magnificent; as a study in the colors and moods of the Australian outback landscape it is a gem. Choreographer Stanton Welch has used movement that is bold, stylish, intricate, and gymnastic."
The ballet for seven couples features a stunningly backlit painting by the noted Australian artist Kevin "Pro" Hart that provides an intensely dramatic backdrop. The musical score, "Nourlangie" by the pre-eminent Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, inspired Welch to dig deeply into its dynamic structure. "You can't hear his music and not hear Australia in it," says Welch. "Somehow he reproduces the sounds of birds and nature. It sounds Australian to me the way that Aaron Copland sounds American."
The comparison of American and Australian pioneers, of course, interested Welch in his planning of the revival of Red Earth. "I do think there is a true connection to Texans in that," says Welch. "European settlers would have found the southwestern landscape most contrasting to their own. I think there is a similarity in learning to struggle and adapt to a harsh environment."
On the program called "Animal Magnetism," scheduled to begin performances on May 24, Welch will revive his signature work Clear, a showcase of pyrotechnical brilliance and elegant virility for Houston Ballet's impressive male contingent. But even more buzz surrounds next season's Houston Ballet premiere of his Cinderella, which was created for The Australian Ballet in 1997. For this heart-felt story ballet set to the sweeping Russian score by Sergei Prokofiev, Welch has departed from the usual simple plotline so that the ballet speaks directly to today's young audiences.
"I love Prokofiev's music for Cinderella, but I always found it darker and a little more mysterious than some of the productions I've seen," says Welch. "It isn't as saccharine as some portray it." Welch, above all, didn't want to view Cinderella as a victim. "In this version, she's not just this sweet person who gets pushed around by her stepmother and stepsisters — she's a tomboy who fights back." And don't expect a fairy godmother. Instead, when Cinderella is thwarted from attending the ball, she visits her mother's grave, where her ghost appears and creates her daughter's beautiful gown.
The biggest departure of all occurs when Cinderella rejects the Prince in favor of his servant, Dandini. "When she goes to the ball, she discovers that the Prince and his friends aren't very nice," says Welch. "It's a romantic comedy, but with a message for young people. Cinderella makes the decision and takes control of her life. Love isn't the cover of the book. It's what's inside."
For next season, Welch has also been commissioned by the San Francisco Ballet to choreograph a new work, but he's keeping mum on that for now. With the many projects he has completed in his young career, how would Welch describe his esthetic? "I am constantly amazed at the ebb and flow of where I am being led," he says. "I am a big believer in instinctively knowing where the next piece needs to go. My ballets are all quite different. I like to go from rough dancing — rolling on the floor — to pure, classical pieces to story ballets."
Keeping up with Stanton Welch may not be the easiest task in the world, but it certainly makes for a fascinating journey.
Joseph Carman, a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine, is the author of Round About the Ballet.