When the 1960s British pop star Lulu crooned the question, "How do you say goodbye to someone who's taken you from crayons to perfume?" it was a tribute to a teacher. When Houston Ballet honors Ben Stevenson on June 15 in the Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, it will be a tribute to a teacher, mentor, leader and friend as he moves into his new role as artistic director emeritus. It won't be easy to say goodbye, but they'll try.
Thanks for the Memories: A Tribute to Ben Stevenson will be a dancing, singing and multimedia salute to the man who has led Houston Ballet from a tiny troupe unknown outside Texas to a world-renowned success. Over 27 years as artistic director, Stevenson has said grace over the opening of a new state-of-the-art studio facility for dance education; the creation of a theater built specifically for ballet and opera, done with private money during the height of Houston's oil bust years in the 1980s; a 1995 historical tour to China where the company's performance was televised live to 500 million viewers; and an increase in the size of the company, from 28 dancers to 50 today. And there are the stars he made, medallist Janie Parker, current London sensation Carlos Acosta and homegrown favorite Lauren Anderson, as well as those he introduced to Texas audiences such as Bolshoi beauty Nina Ananiashvili.
"I think his story ballets, the full-length works he has created so many of, are his true legacy," says principal Julie Gumbinner. "No one else is doing that. But he's kept the artistry alive." Gumbinner, who recently danced the lead in Stevenson's Cinderella for the first time, says she'll most miss his sense of humor and the way he could "rally the dancers and get us revved up as a team for opening night."
Production manager Tom Boyd is producing the gala. "It's like having a whole additional set of performances to the season," he says of the company's gala performance. By all indications, the evening looks to be a blockbuster, with stars such as Parker, Suzanne Longley and Dorio Perez returning to pay homage and selections from some of Stevenson's finest works to be performed. Still, it's nerve wracking for Boyd, who was a dancer with the company in 1976 when Stevenson arrived. "God help me, whatever I do won't be enough. How do you represent someone's contributions for 27 years?"
For Anderson, the firebrand favorite of Houston audiences who's just returning from maternity leave, the goodbye takes a form other than dancing.
"I'm going to sing. I won't tell you what song, it's a secret," she said in April, days before giving birth to her first son. "I'm definitely a better dancer than a singer but this is a dream come true for me‹to be on stage singing with a full orchestra. It's just another great gift that Ben has given me. He took a lot of chances with me." Anderson, who was already in the school when Stevenson arrived, rocketed to fame when he paired her with Carlos "Air" Acosta in his Don Quixote. He also created his Cleopatra on her, a role that won Anderson raves from New York and Boston critics.
Even without Anderson's considerable dance talents there will be plenty to see at A Tribute to Ben Stevenson, a show that could just as easily be called This is Your Life, Ben Stevenson.
"We'll do the waltz scene from Cinderella," says Boyd. "And the balcony pas de deux from his Romeo and Juliet." While both are grand story ballets, the likes of which Stevenson is known for, his Cinderella is perhaps one of his finest full lengths and certainly the one most associated with him as it is in the repertory of more than 20 companies worldwide. Created as his first full-length ballet in America in 1970, it was still playing to packed houses last March as part of the company's 2002-2003 season.
Also on tap for the gala are excerpts from Stevenson's revered pas de deux Three Preludes set to Sergei Rachmaninoff's piano pieces (Opus. 32, #10, Opus. 23, #1, Opus. 32, #9). Created in 1969 for the Harkness Ballet, this romantic pas de deux centered at a ballet barre, has become the quintessential Stevenson duet. It will be interesting to see it paired with another Rachmaninoff work, the more recent Twilight, a beautiful, romantic pas de deux Stevenson choreographed in 2002 for Houston Ballet dancers Sara Webb and Ian Casady at the International Ballet Competition in Jackson.
For almost three decades Stevenson and Houston Ballet have been making magic. It's hard to imagine the one without the other, impossible to imagine what would have happened had Stevenson not come to Texas or not stayed in the Lone Star State.
"It was definitely a symbiotic relationship," says Boyd. "I think we all look for the right set of circumstances to achieve what we are to achieve. And it was clear pretty early on that this was the place for Ben to achieve his destiny."