Ballet Stars

How Norwegian National Ballet's Melissa Hough Balances Ballet, Motherhood and Her Rising Choreography Career

Hough in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon." Joerg Wiesner, Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

Melissa Hough's career is as dynamic as her dancing. After stints with Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet, Hough (our April/May 2011 cover star) joined the Norwegian National Ballet as a principal in 2013, and her dance card has been full ever since. She's turning heads as a choreographer, too. Her work Epic Short, commissioned for Norwegian National Ballet's 2017 Sleepless Beauty program, won Dance Europe magazine's Critic's Choice for Best Premiere that year and recently debuted at the 2018 Diaghilev P.S. Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Hough is also juggling her dance and choreography career with motherhood, and has had an incredibly eventful year since returning to the stage last fall after the birth of her daughter. On April 6, she premieres a new ballet called Bout of the Imperfect Pearl for Norwegian National Ballet's Baroque Motion quadruple bill. Hough took a rehearsal break to talk to me about her busy season.


You've been steadily working as a choreographer since you left Houston Ballet. Talk about the urge to make your own dances.

After I moved to Norway, I had quite a few life revelations that took me by surprise. I began to ask myself a lot of hard questions and forced myself to find the answers. One of these questions was, "Do you want to be a choreographer and if so, why?" I have been a professional ballet dancer for 17 years, and more recently, I have realized the depth and perspective of the knowledge I have concerning stagecraft, dance, art and entertainment. I want to give something to the dancers and the audience of today, and at the same time, continue to learn and grow as a person and artist myself.

What can we expect from your new ballet, Bout of the Imperfect Pearl? Is it along the same lines as your last piece Epic Short, or something completely different?

Each piece I make is individual unto itself based on the music and the subject matter. With Epic Short, my concept was inspired by the vision scene of The Sleeping Beauty, but I wanted to focus more on the inner psychology of the main characters, and how that led to them to their destiny or fate. This piece is centered around the act of intimate betrayal and what one goes through in order to move on from it. It is a little bit heavier subject matter than Epic Short, and therefore will reflect that in the style and feeling the audience gets from it.

Klara Mårtensson in rehearsal for Hough's Bout of the Imperfect Pearl. Erik Berg, Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

You are mixing a new score by Bjarte Eike and Jon Balke with music by Antonio Vivaldi. How did you select these two composers, and how do they work with the Vivaldi?

With Bout of the Imperfect Pearl, I am working with four different pieces of music by Antonio Vivaldi and have decided to create electronic music to link the classical bits together. Bjarte is the leader and solo violinist of Barokksolistene, which is the orchestra for this evening. They specialize in baroque music and use authentic baroque instruments. Jon Balke is a composer, but in this case has been more integral in facilitating my idea, together with Bjarte. It is quite an undertaking to mix the baroque and electronic music worlds together and I have been very fortunate to have these two to bring what was in my head to life.

What has it been like working with your colleagues at Norwegian National Ballet?

It has been amazing to work with these dancers this time around! My cast has been enthusiastic, compassionate and very patient. It seems that they trust what we are creating together and I cannot wait for them to be able to take the material and really go for it.

Hough with Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon." Joerg Wiesner, Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

What have been your big dancing moments this season?

I danced Manon with my former colleague from Houston Ballet, Connor Walsh, which was really amazing. I will never forget those performances. I did Swan Lake, always a big challenge, yet fun. Most recently, I danced in Liam Scarlett's Firebird, which suits me quite well. I enjoy dancing to Stravinsky's score and love becoming this strange, sexy bird creature from hell.

But, I haven't danced anything new this season, which I am thankful for because of how full my plate has been. At this point, my process is quite strict and works very well for me, so I doubt I will have any "game changing" roles in the future. I find each role I dance challenging and I just try to figure out how I can give something authentic to the work and to the audience. Now, it is more about being open and in tune enough to have game changing experiences. The next big, new role I am scheduled to do is Marit Moum Aune and Cina Espjord's Ghosts, which is a one-act contemporary ballet based on Ibsen's famous play, scheduled for next season.

Norwegian National Ballet dancers in Bout of the Imperfect Pearl. Erik Berg, Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

How do you balance your dance and choreography careers with being a mom?

It is not easy at times, but I would say that my relationship to time has changed drastically in the last three years. I used to wait until the last minute to do things, but not anymore. I prepare things very slowly, so I have less to do on a daily basis. My life is now about efficiency and "less is more." When I went back to work, I decided to start working to become a "minimalist," and although this is still a work in progress, it has helped me immensely with wasting less time.

You are obviously thriving in Europe! Is there anything you miss about the States?

It is really difficult to be so far away from my family, especially now that I have a daughter. We are constantly trying to find ways to deal with the distance!

The Conversation
Ballet Training
Via Burst

I'm a ballet dancer of 13 years, but I only got serious about it a few years ago, and very recently realized that I might want to pursue ballet professionally. I've contemplated auditioning for several prestigious pre-professional programs. But now I'm a junior in high school, so I'm worried it's too late. Should I still go for it, or am I better off staying at my current studio and going to college? —Lexi

Keep reading... Show less
The Royal Ballet's Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in La Bayadère. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH.

Do you ever wish you could teleport to London and casually stroll into The Royal Opera House to see some of the world's best-loved ballets? Well, we have a solution for you: The Royal Ballet's 2018-19 cinema season.

Whether live or recorded, the seven ballet programs listed below, streaming now through next October, will deliver all of the magic that The Royal Ballet has to offer straight to your local movie theater. Can you smell the popcorn already?

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Tetsuya Kumakawa, via YouTube

Tetsuya Kumakawa, a former principal with The Royal Ballet and the founder and artistic director of K-Ballet in Tokyo, could make an audience gasp with his wildly powerful and inventive allegro. A boyish, dare-devil dancer, Kumakawa was a natural fit for roles like Franz in Coppélia. Watching him in this clip of Franz's Act I variation, it seems Kumakawa must have some sort of gravity-defying DNA.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Your teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Marcia Dale Weary, recently passed away. What impact did she have on you?

I feel deeply indebted to her. She shaped my life's course, and I know that were it not for her, I would not be living out my dream today. She led by example through her remarkable commitment to her work, as well as her genuine kindness and generosity.

You were a trainee with San Francisco Ballet. What was that experience like?

It was an exposure to different schools of thought. We were mostly in the full-lengths, and watching run-throughs of Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote was revolutionary for me. But I was young and far away from home. That transition was hard. My body started changing. It wanted to be fleshy. Biology is cruel in that way. I desperately wanted to fit in, but it wasn't meant to be.

Keep reading... Show less