Watching an emotionally gut-wrenching early rehearsal of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling at Houston Ballet on Aug. 17, it was clear that the Houston Ballet's fall season was going to be steeped in deep drama.
And it was, but for different reasons.
Hurricane Harvey dropped some 51 inches of rain, wreaking havoc on the entire city, with severe damage to the Downtown Theater District, including Houston Ballet's home theater Wortham Center and its landmark connected building, Center of Dance, where the first floor studios flooded.
Houston Ballet's opening is a sign to all arts loving Houstonians that summer is over and it's time to get back to the theater. During the height of the storm, one look at the water level swirling in the Theater District and we wondered if there would be a fall season at all.
Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh, who was learning the role of Rudolf in Macmillan's Mayerling, watched in horror. "Our theaters are symbolic of this great city," says Walsh. "One of the most challenging things for me was witnessing our theater and studios start to take on water, drowning under the wrath of Harvey."
After a heartfelt statement from executive director Jim Nelson and artistic director Stanton Welch, we were glad to hear that the dancers and artistic staff were safe and sound, and saddened to hear that the season opener, Poetry in Motion, a mixed rep with Balanchine's Symphony in C, Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance) and Welch's Powder, was cancelled.
Harvey Damage and Aftermath
Floods are a constant threat in Houston, and the Center for Dance has come through earlier floods without incident. The company had already gone through this before with Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike. And unlike Allison, where costumes and scenery were destroyed, Houston Ballet moved their sets and costumes to a safe location.
"We were as prepared as possible," says Nelson. "The water rose over the four-foot floodgates and surrounded the building on all four sides, penetrating the building with two to three inches of water."
Welch and Nelson were lucky that they could actually enter their building to see firsthand what they were up against and make a plan of action. "It was key for us to be able to immediately assemble our senior team even before the power was on in the building," says Nelson. The first order of business was to find out who in the Houston Ballet family needed help. They quickly coordinated teams, which included dancers and students, to assist colleagues whose houses had been severely damaged. "The dancers were amazing," adds Nelson.
Houston Ballet Academy teacher Beth Everitt offered classes at the Heights-based Claire School of Dance, located in a high and dry part of town, with all proceeds going to Harvey relief.
During the 10 days or so that the Center for Dance was closed for repairs, the company set up shop in two of the spacious METdance studios, with office staff in the hallways, and physical therapy in a closet. It was a bustling scene with a palpable "we can do this" energy. Nelson and Welch are so grateful for the speedy "yes" from METdance and Midtown's MATCH, where some Academy classes where held. The MET's artistic director Marlana Walsh Doyle and executive director Michelle Smith did not hesitate to help. "METdance has always opened its doors to the community and it wasn't even a question to help out Houston Ballet," says Doyle. "We have been fortunate enough to have little damage to our space from Hurricane Harvey and always want to help. I have a relationship with some of the dancers, as they are also our ballet teachers and choreographers."
Repairs are well underway at the Center for Dance, and the Academy should be back to a full schedule of classes by Sept. 11. The subfloors from both the small studio and the dance lab on the first floor have been removed, as well as two feet of drywall. A new pump and electrical panel for the water system is currently being installed. "I've learned that several of our employees and employees of our contractors are dealing with their own losses, and yet they continue to work tirelessly to get Houston Ballet back on its feet. We're beyond grateful to them for their work," says Nelson. The goal is for the work to be completed in the downstairs studios by Oct. 1.
The Show Goes On at the Hobby
Poetry in Motion has now been moved to Oct. 26–27 at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, a nearby downtown theater that escaped damage. "Our opening mixed rep was reborn at the Hobby, " says Welch, with deserved enthusiasm. "We were thrilled to get two shows, and Houston will be seeing more of these ballets at various celebrations and galas. Stay tuned for more information on that—we are still in the planning stages."
The mixed rep is a chance to meet the crop of 17 new dancers. Now with a roster of 60, Houston Ballet has brought in dancers from companies all over the world and fans are eager to meet the new dancers who have recently made the choice to move to flood-prone Houston. Imagine that many worried parents. Welch felt their pain: "My mother was calling too!"
Mayerling is now scheduled for Sept. 22–24, also at Hobby Center. MacMillan's saga, described by Welch as "a Thanksgiving feast of emotions," is a big deal for the troupe. They are the first North American company to perform the ballet, based on the true and harrowing story of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Walsh is eager to attack the role of Rudolf and to think it almost didn't happen was its own kind of drama. "I was working on a role of a lifetime in Mayerling, and was working to make it not only a highlight of my season but a milestone in my career," says Walsh.
With the rest of the city scrambling for theaters, Welch was overjoyed to get four shows of Mayerling scheduled in at the Hobby Center. "It would break my heart if we had not been able to do Mayerling," says Welch. "We have two fantastic casts. The show must go on!"
As for scoring these dates at one of the busiest theaters in town that houses both Theater Under the Stars and Broadway in Houston, Nelson describes it as nothing short of "a miracle." The house is larger, which is a good thing, because there are fewer shows, and the stage is comparable to the Wortham. "With the set of mostly soft goods, Mayerling is a good touring piece and will fit into the Hobby's stage nicely," says Welch.
As the waters recede and the city heals from this disaster, Houston Ballet's artists are thrilled to be back in their studios. In terms of the people coming to help one another, this was Houston's finest hour, and the ties in the dance community have grown even stronger. "The city rallied brilliantly," says Nelson, considering the can-do spirit of Houston's fellow arts organizations.
"The generosity demonstrated by Houstonians through this has been absolutely breathtaking," says Walsh. "We have had some time off now to get our hands dirty volunteering, but as each day goes by I realize how important it is that we get back to doing what we do best."