The hidden gift of the coronavirus pandemic is that artists are discovering and exploring new avenues of expression. For choreographers, that means film. On November 10, Houston Ballet premiered artistic director Stanton Welch's Restoration, a new digital work for 62 dancers shot at 19 iconic Houston sites. Set to the song "Black Lung," by The Dead South, Restoration is now available for free on the company's Facebook, Instagram and YouTube platforms.
The title refers to the company's journey back to work after this year's extended layoff. And while it may still be a while before we see Houston Ballet on the Wortham Theater Center stage, the dancers have returned on a different set of terms: wearing masks, social distancing and dancing their hearts out with Texas-sized gusto.
"The film is about determination and refocusing ourselves to come back to work," says Welch. "We are marching forward from all over the city, until we are back in our building in the studio. It's our restoration." And, indeed, the film opens with soloist Alyssa Springer charging down a brick path under a luxurious canopy of live-oak trees and ends with her dressed for work in the studio.
Welch, a self-confessed film geek, had success in July with his jubilant video, Dancing with Myself, choreographed on the dancers over Zoom and set to the Billy Idol song of the same title. David Rivera, the company's associate director of audio and visual services, edited everyone's clips together.
For Restoration, it was time to leave the dancers' living rooms and jump head-first into the city. "We specifically looked for green spaces, hoping people from outside of Houston would be wowed by our lush vegetation," says Rivera, who did the film's camera operation and editing. "We also looked for recognizable locations so Houstonians would know this film is also for them."
And Restoration does a great job of showing off the city, including shots at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Menil Collection; Galveston beaches; and the reflecting pool at the Hermann Park Conservancy. "We were ready to move away from the iconic skyline and Wortham Center to the best-kept secret of the city, which are all these green, eclectic and artsy places," says Welch. "We want to imprint a side of Houston that people might not know."
As for the music, Welch found the tone for the moment in Canadian bluegrass band The Dead South. Their raspy vocals, gothic storytelling and retro style were a good fit for Welch's own choreographic signature. "Black Lung" addresses the grind of labor, specifically in the mines, yet the tune also exudes a high-energy tempo. "It was the song's relentless quality and the rhythm of walking that makes it feel like a march," says Welch. "It's like an anthem that means, 'We can roll up our sleeves and do it.'"
Rivera sees Restoration, which was filmed in October, as a huge step up from Dancing with Myself, which was shot by dancers on their phones. "We were able to push production values and have total control of the composition of each shot," says Rivera. "We also went into filming with very detailed shot planning, including the angle of the sun and other lighting details. The entire process was super-structured and organized."
Soloist Jacquelyn Long—who appears in scenes at the McGovern Centennial Gardens, Discovery Green and more—treasured the filming experience. "I actually got to work in the studio, with Stanton in the front of the room and me at the back," says Long. "It felt very safe." Follow-up rehearsals were conducted online, since the company is now adept at learning via Zoom.
Long describes the choreography as earthy, human and even a tiny bit pedestrian. "It feels good on our bodies, very grounded," says Long. "It's a very personal piece—we are wearing our own clothes, which we hand-picked for the filming." Some dancers are decked out in their party dresses, others in their sleek workout clothes. And due to the array of surfaces, there isn't a pointe shoe in sight.
One of the final shots reveals the entire company spread out on a soccer field; drone footage amplifies the dancers' power. "It felt so great to be out there in front of everyone, showing off Stanton's choreographic strengths, all together and in unison," says Long. "This is our show, this is our home, this is our city. We are here to stay."