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.








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Andrew Peasgood and Constance Devernay in "The Fairy's Kiss." Photo by Andy Ross, courtesy Scottish Ballet.

From now through January 15, Pointe is streaming Scottish Ballet in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy's Kiss). This one-act ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Ice Maiden," was choreographed for The Royal Ballet in 1960. For more on the ballet's history and for behind-the-scenes footage, click here.

Synopsis

The Lullaby in the Storm
A mother with her child struggles through the storm. The Fairy with her attendants appears and pursues her. The Fairy separates the mother from her child. Passing villagers find the body of the mother, now dead, and guided by the Fairy, they find the child. The Fairy kisses him on the forehead. The villagers become frightened and taking the child with them, they run away.

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It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Photo Courtesy Barry Kerollis.

I was probably about 15 years old when the director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. She explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn't expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did.

"Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn't do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field." The look on my face must have been utter shock; the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my artform had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator, and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

Unless you've been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the States. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years is bubbling to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly, and those interested in our performing-arts world were speculating that something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month, after I was given a heads-up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many alleged abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years).

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Erica Lall and Shaakir Muhammad in class at American Ballet Theatre's 2013 New York Summer Intensive. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

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When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."

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Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.


Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.

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Every summer intensive director has their own list of audition deal-breakers, but there are a handful of universal turnoffs to avoid. "Yes, we want the most talented students, but when talent is paired with a bad attitude or improper etiquette, it gives us pause," Paul says. While certain behaviors may seem minor, they can make all the difference when it comes time for scholarship offers or even acceptance decisions.

DEAL BREAKER #1: Not Presenting Yourself Professionally

An audition is a first impression, and you want to look your best. This begins with researching the specific intensive's audition requirements. "Our audition has a dress code, and we expect dancers to respect that," says Rina Kirshner, director of the Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy programs. "We want dancers to stand out through hard work and talent, not brightly colored leotards or flowers in their hair."

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