Houston knows a thing or two about storms. But when the hurricane that is Melissa Hough blazed through Jirí Kylián’s hyper-dynamic Forgotten Land at the opening of Houston Ballet’s 2010 season, it was as if a flash of lightning had struck the Wortham Center stage. Hough’s fierce, full-throttle attack punctuated Kylián’s movement with speed and precision. It was Houston audiences’ first glimpse of her talents. Yet in her typical frank, matter-of-fact manner, Hough took her debut in stride: “With Kylián,” she says, “you just need to keep up.”

 

Hough’s dancing reflects her personality: dynamic and surprising. Drawn to challenges, the 25-year-old is not the type of dancer who’s easily intimidated. Her fearless intensity can be traced back to her time in the competition world. Last summer, Hough proved she has the confidence to steer her career by making tough—if surprising—choices when she left her principal position at Boston Ballet to become Houston Ballet’s top soloist to watch. 

 

A Baltimore, Maryland, native, Hough began dancing at age 3 in combo ballet-tap-jazz classes. Her parents are both retired Army musicians, each having served over 25 years in the U.S. Army Field Band. Her sister tried dancing but ultimately gravitated toward gymnastics and then competitive cheerleading. Hough, however, found her stride on the competition circuit with Dance Explosion, a studio in Glen Burnie, MD, where she trained from ages 7 to 17. But as much as she loved jazz and hip-hop, Hough always wanted to be a ballet dancer. At 13, she also enrolled at the Kirov Academy in Washington, DC. “It was difficult, but I managed to cobble a schedule together. I did most of my ballet at Kirov and the rest at Dance Explosion,” she says. “Luckily the studios weren’t that far away.”

 

Straddling both worlds gave Hough an edge, but also held her back. “I was the only person at Kirov who could do more than two pirouettes, and I felt more advanced when it came to attacking things,” she says. “But the school didn’t value that. I needed to work more on movement quality.” In the Kirov’s annual concert, Hough stood out performing one of her competition jazz solos. “It was great to be noticed in that way, but I wasn’t taken seriously and the teachers often discouraged me from pursuing a ballet career.”

Nonetheless, Hough was hired as an apprentice at BalletMet Columbus, where she danced for a year before heading to Boston Ballet II. Boston Ballet was in transition at the time, and Hough had the advantage of a new director’s eyes. “Mikko Nissinen had just become artistic director, so it was an exciting time,” recalls Hough. “There were a lot of people to look up to and learn from.” Her career progressed quickly: She joined the corps at 19, became a soloist at 22 and a principal at 24. Yet though she was regularly dancing Jirí Kylián, Lucinda Childs and William Forsythe, she was being passed over for classical parts. In 2005, she saw a chance to prove her classical skills by entering the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. She performed Aurora’s challenging Act I variation from Sleeping Beauty, winning the bronze medal. It wasn’t long before she was performing Aurora in Boston. “Dancing Aurora,” says Hough, “was the first time I truly believed I was a ballerina.”

 

Even though she began getting more classical roles, Hough still felt frustrated that she couldn’t change the company’s perception of her. Her last year at Boston Ballet was fraught with difficulties, from a failed romance to her first serious injury—labral tears in both hips. She also underwent exploratory stomach surgery for an undiagnosed ailment. “Now the pain is gone,” she says. “My stomach was trying to tell me something.” Even as she declares the decision was the right one, it’s painful to talk about. “It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend, which I did as well. You are sad, angry, regretful. You remember the good times, but come to understand that something was not working,” says Hough. “I felt jaded, unable to function and angry much of the time. It was a difficult choice. But I wasn’t dancing my best. I needed to accept that and move on.”

 

Hough had met Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch when he was an associate artistic director at BalletMet and she’d danced in his production of Don Quixote. “She left an impression,” remembers Welch. They reconnected when both Houston Ballet and Boston Ballet performed at the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America festival in 2008. Intrigued by the prospect of dancing for Welch—and in the same company as her new boyfriend, demi-soloist James Gotesky—Hough sent Welch a DVD. “I was most surprised at her Sleeping Beauty, which was lovely,” says Welch. A conversation ensued, leading to a job offer.

 

Welch hasn’t been disappointed. “Melissa is brave, and fully trusts the choreographic process,” he says. “There’s no resistance or fear. She’s smart, detailed in her thinking, stylistically flexible.”

 

Immediately after the opening weekend, Hough took center stage in Balanchine’s Jewels, dancing “Diamonds” and “Rubies” with blazing gusto. She had earned rave reviews in Boston for Jewels, and was happy to have at least one familiar piece on her plate. “If it weren’t for Jewels, those first few months would have really been hard,” she says. “Balanchine was my saving grace.”

Hough has no regrets about taking a lower rank, and finds she actually performs more often now. “Casting is not so much based on rank here,” she explains. She went from a relatively light rehearsal schedule to one where she’s in everything. “It was a bit of a shock—every dancer here knows 800 parts,” she says. Already, she has learned Welch’s Tu Tu, The Core, Velocity and his full length Marie, as well as three roles—including Aurora—in Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty.

 

This May, she returns to familiar territory in Jorma Elo’s new work for Houston Ballet. An original cast member in his signature Brake the Eyes at Boston Ballet, Elo’s highly idiosyncratic choreography—a subtle squiggle of the wrist, a figure eight drawn with the left hip, a birdlike twitch of the head—comes naturally to Hough. “My training in hip-hop and many styles of jazz helps,” says Hough (who still pops into jazz, lyrical and hip-hop classes when a convention like New York City Dance Alliance is in town). “There are so many options with his choreography. I can push the music, channeling the frenetic energy. There’s so much freedom, almost too much.”

 

Even though the repertoire is familiar, transferring to Houston Ballet has given Hough a chance to reinvent herself. “There’s a different attitude toward me in this company,” she says. “This is amazing, not working with a bias. I am breaking my own boundaries. Because to them, I am a ballerina.”

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston, TX.








Elizabeth Abbick as the Snow Queen in Butler Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Brent Smith, Courtesy Abbick.

Pointe caught up with three college dancers last spring to see what it's like juggling ballet, academics and a social life on campus. First up is Elizabeth Abbick, a student at Jordan College of the Arts, Butler University getting her BFA in dance performance and her BA in mathematics.

Abbick studying in the library. Photo by Jimmy Lafakis for Pointe.

Leawood, Kansas, native Elizabeth Abbick faced some tough choices her senior year of high school. Equally talented in math and ballet, she wanted a professional dance career but also desired to plan her post-performance life. "Butler University had always been on my radar because I knew the faculty was stellar and the students are the best of the best. I realized it could offer me both worlds," she says. Now a senior majoring in dance performance and mathematics, she hopes to work on the business side of the ballet world after her stage career.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

If you're in the NYC area and are in need of weekend plans, you might want to consider heading to the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Jean-Stéphane Bron's documentary, The Paris Opéra. While the film was originally released in France this past spring, it just made its way to the US on October 18th, and it chronicles the 2015-2016 season at the Paris Opera.

Encompassing the entire institution (which was founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV!), dancers will particularly enjoy an inside look at the Paris Opéra Ballet—both in rehearsals and onstage. Most notably, Bron captures the then POB director Benjamin Millepied as he decides to leave his position with the company barely a year after his appointment.

Check out the full trailer below, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's full listing of showtimes here.

Your Training
Thinkstock.

Bianca Bulle was always prone to ankle sprains. When she was 18, her recoveries became more complicated: She started experiencing Achilles tendonitis due to muscle weakness and fluid buildup in the ankle. "The last thing to get back to normal would be my Achilles, which was so incredibly tight and painful," says Bulle, now a principal at Los Angeles Ballet.

The Achilles is the body's largest tendon, attaching the bottom of the calf muscles to the back of the heel. It contracts and releases as you relevé and plié, as well as when you jump and even walk. Tendonitis, or inflammation, of the Achilles is one of the most frequently reported overuse injuries among active people, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. You'll know it by the pain or tightness at the back of the heel. If the condition gets bad enough, the tendon can rupture, which requires surgery to fix.

Achilles tendonitis is especially common among dancers on pointe, but it's not inevitable. With rest and proper conditioning, you can work to avoid it with careful technique and a commitment to cross-training.


Boston Ballet School pre-professional students. Photo by Igor Burlak Photography, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

What Causes It?

Keep reading... Show less
New York City Ballet in Marc Chagall's costume designs for Balanchine's "Firebird."

I am a self-confessed costume nerd who really needs little persuasion to travel nearly 3,000 miles to see a costume exhibition—which is what I did when I set off for California for the new exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage. I knew Marc Chagall primarily for his sumptuous blue swirling paintings featuring violin-playing goats, his incredible ceiling at the Paris Opéra's Palais Garnier, and murals at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, so I was intrigued to see his work with ballet.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985), was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal in Belarus. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study art, apprenticing under famed Ballets Russes designer Leon Bakst. Chagall's work in ballet and opera, however, did not begin until he and his wife Bella arrived in the U.S. as World War II refugees in 1941.

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, adapted from an earlier exhibition at the Montreal Music of Art and curated by Yuval Sharon and Jason H. Thompson, is an exciting opportunity to see 41 costumes and nearly 100 designs. But it is the costumes that really steal the show. You won't see any tutus here, but instead amazing, almost cartoon-like realizations of Chagall's artwork. LACMA's exhibition runs through January 7, 2018. For those of you who can't make the trip like I did, here's a rundown of highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Tiler Peck in "Who Cares?". Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck and Emmy-winning actress Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men and Handmaid's Tale fame) may seem like unlikely friends, until you dig a little deeper into their backgrounds. Both attended Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica and spent summers at the School of American Ballet in their youths. Moss and Peck's career paths diverged when the former fell in love with acting and Peck went on to study at SAB full time, eventually becoming the star we know today. Now, the pairs' artistic pursuits are uniting in an exciting new project.

According to Deadline.com, Moss will produce a documentary featuring Peck and her work curating BalletNOW, last summer's star-studded, critically acclaimed program at Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Peck was the first woman to lead BalletNOW's programming, and she brought together dancers from companies including The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opéra Ballet, putting them on stage with tappers, clowns and break dancers (sometimes simultaneously).


Keep reading... Show less
Your Best Body

Looking for creative and healthy ways to get your pumpkin fix this fall? First, back away from the pumpkin-spiced latte—the season's unofficial drink is often laced with sugary syrup and comes with a complimentary mid-rehearsal crash. Instead, try these simple snacks with puréed pumpkin. It's high in beta-carotene, which converts to immunity-boosting vitamin A, and is a good source of vitamin K, iron and fiber. You can buy it canned or make the purée from a "sugar" or "pie" pumpkin (they're commonly available at grocery stores or farm markets).

Fruit-and-Spice Toast

- Spread purée onto whole-grain toast.

- Top with sliced pear.

- Add a dash of cinnamon.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars

When Maya Plisetskaya first toured abroad with the Bolshoi Ballet, she stunned the world. Her dramatic and technical abilities were far beyond what anyone outside the Soviet Union had seen before. She quickly became an icon, symbolizing Russian ballet.

Plisetskaya was the perfect ballerina to play the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse when choreographer Alexander Radunsky and composer Rodion Shchedrin recreated the classic Russian folktale in the 1960s. This vintage clip of the ballet offers a glimpse into an era gone by. Although ballet technique has advanced since then, Plisetskaya's performance is still electrifying. She is daring and agile in her manèges and fouettés, while she shows gentle purity and authentic emotion in the pas de deux with the wide-eyed Ivan. Even half a century later, this magnificent artist continues to transfix us with her radiant presence onstage. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!