In ballet circles say "Houston" and the reply will invariably come back: "Ah, Ben Stevenson." Few artistic directors have branded their company so firmly as Ben, an urban cowboy who now after nearly 27 years on the back of that typical Texan invention, the Mechanical Bull, is handing over the bucking steer to Stanton Welch, and becoming, more sedately, the artistic director emeritus, a title he has done everything to merit.
I have known Ben ever since he was a boy in England, a brilliant dance student who became only the second male dancer in history to win Britain's most prestigious dance prize for a student, The Royal Academy of Dancing's Adeline Genee Gold Medal. In England he was regarded as one of the most technically and stylistically gifted dancers of his generation. This paragon had only one fault‹he suffered from stage fright. He danced first with the Royal Ballet and then with the English National Ballet, with some success but did not really realize his promise.
Many dancers would have given up‹Stevenson decided that stage fright could be conquered. For a year or so he left ballet altogether for the Broadway musical stage of London's West End theater. He took a dancing and talking part in The Music Man. And that more or less cured him. He returned to the English National Ballet - his first mentor had been the company's founder/director, Sir Anton Dolin‹as a principal and ballet-master, and at last scored in virtuoso roles such as the leads in Harald Lander's Etudes and Variations for Four. The whiz kid finally whizzed. On stage!
In 1967, together with Dame Beryl Grey, he mounted a new production of Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, and by this time‹he was just 30 - the bug of choreographing, directing and teaching totally grabbed him. In 1969 he moved, he thought temporarily, to the United States to direct the Harkness Youth Dancers, and he never moved back. A marvelous teacher and coach, as a director he shifted around a bit, Washington, Chicago, until in 1976 he became artistic director of the then very modest Houston Ballet. He raised the company to the stature of one of the nation's largest, finest and most internationally recognized. The ballet Cinderella had become his 'calling card' and it was almost naturally the first work he staged for Houston on his arrival.
It was a good and smart choice. Cinderella is a fairy tale that has always held potent charm for children and adults alike. The "rags to riches" scenario is the ultimate in social mobility, but also‹for proper fairy tales always have an equally proper moral message‹note that just as important is the idea of "virtue rewarded." Our heroine is not merely a poor little girl. Any unscrubbed urchin would do for that. She is a good and generous poor little girl, willing to share her last crust with a beggar woman.
With its bewitching score by Serge Prokofiev, the ballet had been a hit since its first 1945 staging in Moscow with choreography by Rotislav Zakharov.
Of all the later versions‹it would fill a page to list them all‹Stevenson's production, first staged for the National Ballet in Washington, D.C. on 24 April 1970, has not only been among the most effective but certainly the most widely distributed. The original Washington production was rather small-scale, and had Marilyn Burr and Ivan Nagy in the principal roles, alternating with Gaye Fulton and Desmond Kelly, and later, Margot Fonteyn, a friend of Stevenson, also partnered by Kelly, danced Cinderella as a guest artist.
In Houston Stevenson offered an enlarged version of this same Cinderella, with new scenery and costumes by the distinguished English designer David Walker. Many companies have danced it since, most notably the English National Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. This Stevenson version has a few things (including the musical cut of the Prince's round-the-world search for Cinderella) in common with the famous 1948 Frederick Ashton version for Britain's Royal Ballet‹where Stevenson had begun his career. Most notable is the use of the British music-hall pantomime tradition of the "Dame," male comedians dressed as elderly women. Interestingly, although alien to theater experience outside the British Isles, this has been readily accepted internationally with both the Ashton and the Stevenson productions.
So how appropriate and in a way how sad - for even a slight parting is sweet sorrow - that Ben's days (weeks, months and hours) as Houston's artistic director should be bookended so neatly with this Cinderella. Of course he is not completely leaving. As a close friend of both his handpicked successor Welch and the company's new Artistic Associate, Maina Gielgud, one imagines that that 'emeritus' will mean quite a lot. Still on June 15 at 7.00 p.m. the Houston Ballet will be giving a gala to honor Ben and his career. It's called: "Thanks for the Memories: A Tribute to Ben Stevenson." A champagne reception follows. But Ben was always himself champagne enough. Thanks indeed! Those memories are indelible.