Houston Ballet opens its 2012-13 season with Welch's haunting two-act ballet version of Madame Butterfly September 6-16.
"I think Puccini is the best dance music. There's something like Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky in it, swelling and running. You can hear it and visualize movement. Not many opera are like that. Dad [former Australian Ballet principal dancer Garth Welch] was choreographing for the opera, so I was around the opera a lot when I was growing up. And the only ones I really loved were the Puccinis. Nothing else made me want to run around. So I fell in love with Butterfly."
As a young dancer at The Australian Ballet, he had already created two ballets for the company, Of Blessed Memory (1991), dedicated to his mother, former Australian Ballet principal dancer and artistic director Marilyn Jones; and then the edgy, neo-classic powerhouse Divergence (1994). He was ready to tackle a full-length, and Puccini was singing in his ear.
So was John Lanchbery, legendary international music director and conductor, who had dreamed of Butterfly for years. He had planned a one-act version with Sir Frederick Ashton for the Royal Ballet back in the '50s, but the rights for Puccini were unavailable, so that ballet morphed into Madame Chrysantme, based on the 1887 Pierre Loti novel which first described the story of a French naval officer and his "marriage" to a Japanese geisha, with commissioned music by acclaimed English modernist Alan Rawsthorne. "I went up to Jack as you do when you're young and stupid and said I would really like to do it. He was thrilled. Jack and I went to Maina Gielgud, the artistic director of The Australian Ballet, and she was thrilled because everyone wanted a full-length, and here was a readymade one."
It took two more years to research and shape.
"We went to a lot of Kabuki and Noh theater. Jack felt the Puccini music was a little repetitive and didn't necessarily need to follow the whole score. I came from the perspective of, all of it is good. I'd use every inch of it. That was really our only debate. The powers of the company wanted a full evening, and thus began the idea of turning it into two acts. I went back and researched all the original material [Loti and the John Luther Long 1898 short story, Madame Butterfly, which gave the geisha her name, Cio-Cio San, and turned the French naval officer American]. It was a book written like it was a letter."
Welch took this idea and deepened it, turning the ballet into a memory of Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki where the story happens.
"That's why everything is sort of washed out. It's all kind of foggy-like memory, a westerner's version of Japan. It gave me a doorway into the movement."
Houston Ballet Ballet Master Steven Woodgate was in his final year as Senior Artist at The Australian Ballet in 1995 when Welch asked him to create the role of opportunistic marriage broker Goro. Since 2003 he has staged Butterfly around the world and is the ballet's official representative. Houston Ballet principal dancer Amy Fote has danced more performances of Butterfly than anyone except Australian Ballet principal Vicki Attard, who originated the role of Cio-Cio San.
When asked if he remembers those days in the studio, Woodgate laughs merrily.
"Of course I remember. We had hours of rehearsal. Like Stanton normally does, it was all very planned in his head before he got there. Jack [Lanchbery] and he were very much in tune, so there wasn't a lot of 'let's work that out.' I loved my role, not only was it good dancing, with lots of quick stuff that I was normally doing in the company, but also it had a lot of acting. One time, a random guy in the back was showing off and picked up a girl by her bottom and did this..."
Woodgate stands up and raises an imaginary partner in the air by cupping her rear with his two hands and lifting her above his head.
"Stanton saw that, and immediately put it in the pas de deux."
"Butterfly's special," Fote says with a warm smile, as if remembering a dear friend. "It touches all the senses. I have chills even speaking about it. The music pulls with your heart. It's a very stamina-heavy ballet. Butterfly's onstage non-stop, especially in the second act. I rarely look to the front [toward the audience], and if I do I'm not seeing anything because I'm so engaged with the people I'm on stage with."
The process of becoming Butterfly begins with the white, mask-like makeup. "When you put that on, you put on that character." She watches other dancers and opera performances to spur ideas, but it's with her Pinkerton when the spark ignites. "Everyone feels different, and you don't want to say, Can you put your hand here, because that's what so-and-so used to do. You have to be patient and figure out what's new and special for each couple, but eventually you get it. You want to be true and sincere in that moment."
Puccini's achingly romantic music is illuminated through Welch's rich choreographic panorama of passion and innocence destroyed. Like Romeo and Juliet, the tale spun by Loti, Long, and David Belasco : whose phenomenally successful theater adaptation was seen by Puccini in New York and set him afire : is timeless. It affects you no matter your age.
"People very quickly connect to it," says Welch. "You don't have to be someone of experience to understand, because Butterfly isn't. She and Pinkerton do what they do because they are young and stupid. And young people connect to that, just like to Romeo."
Two-time Lone Star Press Award winner for Arts Criticism, D.L. Groover writes about the stage for the Houston Press, OutSmart, A+C Houston, Dance Source Houston, and Playbill. He is co-author of Skeletons From the Opera Closet, an irreverent look at that loudmouth art form, currently in its fourth printing.