A new era is dawning at Houston Ballet. The reign of artistic director Ben Stevenson is ending and although his influence‹the British classical training and his legacy of big story ballets ‹ will live on, there's a new sheriff in town.
Slight of build, with a goatee, tiny gold earrings, a winning smile and infectious laugh, 33-year-old Australian choreographer extraordinaire Stanton Welch breezed into Texas last January as the board of Houston Ballet anointed him successor to Stevenson's 27-year rule. Welch wore ostrich skin cowboy boots.
"You know we have cowboy hats in Australia," laughs Welch. "It's really a very similar culture. The whole Australian mentality is very Texan." And that should stand Welch in good stead for the 2003-2004 season. Because before he was tapped as the new artistic director, Stevenson had already commissioned him to do a new full-length work for the company next season. The company already has Indigo (1999) and Bruiser (2000) in its repertory and last year added Welch's 1995 Madame Butterfly, which he created for The Australian Ballet.
"I also wanted him to create a work that would be unique to Houston Ballet," says Stevenson. What they came up with was Tales of Texas. "That's the working title, anyway," says Welch, who is dedicating the piece to Stevenson. It will be a trilogy: a narrative section on Pecos Bill, a line dancing-inspired section with Patsy Cline music and an "essence" piece on pioneers. "Pecos is mythology," explains Welch, "it's not like I'm an Australian doing a ballet on the Alamo." Tackling Texas tradition aside, Welch has some big boots to fill, but he's not alone.
"There are two sides to the coin," he says of his youth. "A younger director can bring in new audiences, new sponsors." But he also admits there will be other issues because of his age, which is one reason he is bringing in famed British ballerina Maina Gielgud as his artistic associate. "It was important that I have someone of that generation to counter balance me." Welch will also rely on Stevenson, who will still be available for coaching and artistic advice as he steps into an artistic director emeritus position. "It's a great thing for me that he will still be around," says Welch.
"Stanton Welch and Maina Gielgud," says longtime principal dancer Lauren Anderson. "I mean, what a combo, this is just great for Houston Ballet." Principal Mireille Hassenboehler, one of the dancers on the search committee, agrees. "It's been a long process but now I'm so excited about the future."
"It's not like he (Welch) was sitting around twiddling his thumbs looking for a job," adds Anderson. "He's worked with this company for several years, he really wanted this company." Welch himself speaks of a familiarity with Houston and the company, noting that he has watched many dancers come up through the ranks since his first commission here.
Welch, born in Melbourne in 1969, was a child of pop culture, color TVs and rock and roll. Even though his parents, Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones, were both famous ballet dancers, Welch himself didn't start taking class until he was 17. As a younger teen he hosted a youth music news program on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation network. When he finally did start to dance, things happened fast. Within three years he was taken into The Australian Ballet. Gielgud was the artistic director at that time and a year later she gave him his first commission. Since then Welch has created almost thirty ballets, everything from storybook full lengths to athletic romps to a tutu ballet (they were, however, rubber tutus). He has been hailed as one of the hottest choreographers around the world and has set works in Russia, England, Canada and on both coasts here. He is a favorite at San Francisco Ballet and in May premieres his second work for American Ballet Theatre.
While keeping Stevenson's classic story ballets in the company repertoire, Welch would like to bring in some of his earlier works, like Divergence (1994), create new full-length works and acquire new works from Christopher Bruce, the company's associate choreographer since 1989. "Also Julia Adams and David Bintley and if we can at all afford it, Mark Morris," says Welch. "I think it would be great for these dancers to work with him."