Stanton Welch looks over a flock of chickens and a rooster, all of whom stand in a docile, ballet's fifth position. A cameraman glances at the screen and yells, "From the beginning!"
A scene from La Fille mal gardée is being filmed for a 30-second TV promo. Layers of feathers, padding, floppy shoes, and huge masks are hot and cumbersome for the dancers, but hilarious to the viewers. "I worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken in Australia," Welch says to laughter. "That's how I paid my way to come to America for the first time to study ballet." He counts out the steps, and gives instructions like "scratch, scratch" and "shuffle around." The chickens oblige.
Guiding a TV shoot is just one of many responsibilities Welch has assumed as Houston Ballet's new artistic director. The 34-year-old Australian succeeded Ben Stevenson on July 1. Admired as an outstanding choreographer, Welch was one of eight candidates considered for the position, which involved extensive interviews with the search committee, the dancers, the faculty of Houston Ballet Academy, and the company's artistic, administrative, and production staffs; as well as being asked to teach a ballet class and conduct rehearsals.
A new artistic director, especially one who takes over from a long-esteemed predecessor, excites curiosity and a little apprehension. What are his goals, his vision? "I want to continue on the same path as Ben and add new ballets," Welch responds. Several, of course, will be his own, which is why the search committee hired him: It wanted a gifted choreographer who would create a distinctive repertory and one that would give Houston Ballet a unique identity.
Welch had already created two new works especially for Houston Ballet: Indigo, a 1999 ballet set to Vivaldi that has become a signature piece for the company and was last performed on tour at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and Bruiser, which was featured at the Sadler's Wells Theater in London in 2001. Last September, Houston Ballet performed Welch's celebrated production of Madame Butterfly, a popular and critical success, which premiered in Australia in 1995. And in March 2004, the young choreographer unveils Tales of Texas, an evening-length work that was commissioned by Stevenson for the company. In addition, Welch's earthy A Dance in the Garden of Mirth opens Houston Ballet's 2003-2004 season this month on a program that also includes William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated and Trey McIntyre's world premiere, The Shadow.
In his new role, Welch has recruited 12 new dancers, including two principal male dancers, and is in the process of recruiting a new ballet master. Shortly after receiving the offer in January, Welch called the woman who gave him his first choreographic assignment in Australia, Maina Gielgud, and asked her to serve as his artistic associate.
From 1983 to 1996, Gielgud was director of The Australian Ballet, where Welch's parents were both principal dancers. "When Stanton was two," Gielgud recalls, "I was dancing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and so was his mother. He was in her dressing room where they were playing with blocks. The loudspeaker signaled her cue and she said, 'I have to leave you to dance a pas de deux,' as though she was going to the grocery store!"
At first Welch had no desire to follow his parents into the world of ballet. "I thought it was a place where people were mean and awful," he admits. "I can remember seeing my mother cry. And when she died in Romeo and Juliet, I screamed and had to be taken out of the theater. My parents tried to take us to ballet class. The condition was, I talked my brother Damien [who is three years younger] into going with me. But I ran out during barre, and left my brother screaming.
"It was embarrassing to have parents as ballet dancers," he adds. "We were teased in every school. If you can't play cricket or football, you are useless. I swam and Damien played football, so we were in shape. But when I wanted to be creative my outlet was the theater."
As a child Welch was a TV reporter on a show he describes as "MTV for 12-year-olds." He was also host for something called Jam Sandwich, which meant getting up at 5 a.m. and being put in a cab to the studio. "I don't know if parents today would do that," he says.
According to Gielgud, Welch was working backstage with costumes when he finally "got the ballet bug." He then signed up for class at the rather late age of 17 and quickly won a scholarship to San Francisco Ballet School. In 1989 he joined Australian Ballet, where he danced such principal roles as Des Grieux in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, Lensky in John Cranko's Eugene Onegin, Camille in Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow, and Alan Strang in Equus.
His brother Damien also changed his mind about the art form and became a principal dancer with Australian Ballet. "I choreographed every work in Australia for him," Welch says proudly.
Gielgud had received her first glimpse of Welch's talent as a choreographer when he created a work to Mahler's Kindertotenlieder for a ballet school. "I was totally amazed," she says. 'Here's a choreographer,' I thought." He was soon creating pieces for the company: The Three of Us (1990), Of Blessed Memory (1991), Divergence (1994) and full-length productions of Cinderella in 1997 and Madame Butterfly.
He found creating dance more appealing than performing, so he gave up the stage five years ago to become Australian Ballet's resident choreographer. Soon he was asked to create works for such prestigious companies as San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Danish Ballet.
What appeals to him about Houston Ballet? "It's a choreographer-based company," he says. "Teaching is not my forte, choreography is. A great teacher is as rare as a great dancer. That's why I brought in Maina."
Welch has adjusted to Houston easily. "I love the weather here," Welch exclaims. "It is not too different from Australia, although no one there has air conditioning." Less typical for Texas is his preferred mode of transportation‹a bike. "Maybe I will set a trend here," he says.
Margaret Putnam lives in Richardson, Texas, and writes about dance for The Dallas Morning News.