The New Guard

The transition from one artistic director to another is a time of change, especially for dancers, who often must adapt to a new style almost as quickly as they learn their next roles. Sometimes audiences feel a strain, too. In 2003, when Houston Ballet Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson stepped down and Stanton Welch, former resident choreographer with The Australian Ballet, took over, some ballet supporters clutched the edges of their seats. Stevenson had charmed audiences for 27 years with his knack for storytelling and sense of humor, and audiences wanted a new director with personality, one who would move the company forward while maintaining its reputation for the full-length classics.

By all accounts, the transition has proceeded smoothly. Stevenson left Houston for Texas Ballet Theater in Dallas and Fort Worth, citing a need to get back into the studio and work. And Welch, wearing a pair of black cowboy boots to his first Houston Ballet press conference, ingratiated himself by choreographing an evening-length tribute to his new home state, Tales of Texas, then programming Stevenson’s Romeo and Juliet this season.

Welch began strategizing Houston Ballet’s future upon his arrival, just in time for the company’s 35th anniversary. After launching the landmark season with three ballets by female choreographers—two world premières by Natalie Weir and Julia Adam plus Lila York’s Celts—Welch made another bold move by reviving the company’s much-touted Cullen Contemporary Series one month later, which included three more world premières by Adrian Burnett, Matjash Mrozewski and himself.

This commitment to blending contemporary work with the classics suggests that Houston Ballet’s next 35 years will be as exciting as its first.

“In a big ballet company like ours, we prove more than ever that the line [between classical and contemporary] is very gray,” Welch says. “The dancers do Christopher Bruce and Etudes, and they do them beautifully. And there are many ballets in between.”

Dancer turnover did spike following Welch’s arrival, according to Houston Ballet Managing Director C.C. Conner. Although some of that attrition was normal, others left as a result of the change in directorship. Former principals Julie Gumbinner and Lucas Priolo followed Stevenson to Texas Ballet Theater. Longtime principal dancer Dominic Walsh left to work full-time with his new company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, launched the year before Welch’s arrival. But those who stayed at Houston Ballet were drawn to Welch’s vision.

Principal dancer Sara Webb says she has experienced the best of both worlds. “With Ben, we did a lot of classical ballet, which was wonderful, but Stanton wants to take classical ballet and see what the dance world has to offer as we progress,” Webb says. 

Dancers, staff and audience members have responded favorably to Welch’s ideas, especially coming on the heels of Stevenson’s successful tenure. Stevenson’s full-lengths, such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Cleopatra, became staples in the repertoire after he took over as director in 1976. (The company was originally founded in 1969 under the direction of Nina Popova, a former dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.)

Schedules have become more rigorous under the company’s new leadership. Artistic Associate Maina Gielgud, former artistic director of The Australian Ballet, teaches and coaches dancers in Houston, making sure their technique equals that of dancers she works with in top companies in Paris, London and Tokyo. Morning classes in Houston are often divided according to gender or rank.

The studio atmosphere is demanding but familial, dancers say, and they appreciate Welch’s concern for their well-being. He stays in close contact with the company’s physical therapist and pays particular attention to injuries.

“I had an injury and had surgery in June,” says principal dancer Mireille Hassenboehler, who has performed with Houston Ballet since 1992. “The way Stanton works allows you to come back at a pace that’s suited for your body, without coming back too soon. He allows you some give and take.”

The son of Australian Ballet dancers Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch, Welch also understands the demands of balancing a career with a family. He encourages dancers to continue performing once they have children. Principals Lauren Anderson, Barbara Bears and soloist Susan Bryant have all returned after their pregnancies.

Principal Simon Ball and his wife, corps de ballet member Frances Perez-Ball, moved from Boston Ballet to Houston. “Stanton pushes the men,” Ball says. “The Australian Ballet has a history of a strong male population, and Stanton doesn’t accept anything less than your best. I think also because he was brought up in the ballet world, he doesn’t see being a male dancer as being strange. With some directors you feel you have to compensate in some way. It’s nice to be appreciated for who you are.”

The atmosphere in Houston has helped the couple ease the transition from the East Coast. “Coming from Boston to Texas, there’s no lack of the arts,” Ball continues. “You think Texas is all bullriding and roping—and I have gone to the rodeo, and it’s great—but there is so much else going on, and so many diverse ethnicities here.”

Welch and Conner plan to present Houston Ballet on tour. The company did travel to China, Russia and elsewhere under Stevenson, but for now they’re concentrating on the transition in directorship and mapping out the company’s future.

“A new artistic director always causes everybody to get excited and work harder, and everybody has really pulled through,” Conner says. “I’m hearing the patrons and donors say, ‘The company looks phenomenal,’ and I’m glad they could see it so quickly.”

Meanwhile, Welch continues to develop his vision for the company’s future. “Every day in an artform is a discovery. I certainly feel that,” he says. “By the time we get to The Nutcracker we will have produced six or seven new ballets. That was our intention and our plan. All the choreographers [we brought in] have such different styles.

“It’s amazing to see the different dancers who have suddenly become prominent—people I knew I liked but wasn’t sure why. I had trouble finding the work for them myself, and suddenly a choreographer’s plucked them out, and they’re stars. That kind of thing is extremely important for a company—it really builds and makes careers. We’ve had a lot of that in the past six months.”

Welch has no definite answer for how long he plans to stay in Houston, but he says, “For me this is not a stepping stone, this is the end of the road. I’m surprised that it’s occurring now, but it was always my goal.”

Christie Taylor was a 2004 New York Times/National Endowment for the Arts fellow at the American Dance Festival’s Institute for Dance Criticism.

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