Five and Counting: A Conversation with Houston Ballet’s Stanton Welch

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Stanton Welch
Photo by Kara Duval

Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch glides into his fifth year with considerable style, a season rich with three new works of his own and works by leading contemporary masters. It’s gone by fast. He stopped in to give us a glimpse of the year ahead, some insider info on his approach to storytelling, and the view from the helm at year five.

ArtsHouston: So how does year five feel? With 12 works—counting this season—for Houston Ballet, you are hardly the new guy in town, yet at 36 far from the old guy in town. Is there some level of comfort at five?

Welch: I can’t believe it’s been five years. It feels more like one really long year. As for letting my guard down, quite the opposite. For dancers and choreographers, as we move up the ranks, we are more conscious of the fact that we need to produce something better and different. They have seen your hits, and what if that was it? You want your next ballet to be even better.

AH: Is there one moment when you felt like you had truly arrived?

SW: I certainly don’t think that there was one single defining moment, but I have felt for a while that this is the right choice for me, and I have no desire to go somewhere else. It’s an interesting sensation. We are trained to strive and want more. When you feel like you have what you want, well, that’s a strange thing.

AH: Part of Houston’s identity is in its cultural resources, yet few seem to recognize the cultural heavyweight we are. Where do you stand on that front?

SW: I feel very much as an ambassador for Texas outside of Houston. You are right, there is a great deal of prejudice about the south and especially Texas and they are wrong. The only way to know that is when people come here. I have fought this battle and feel very strongly that this is a great art city. That’s why it’s crucial for us to tour.

AH: So, are you touring much this year?

SW: Yes, we have been invited back to Montreal. In addition, we will be going to Kansas City, Minneapolis, and will be performing at the Ballet Across America Festival at the Kennedy Center.

AH: It’s an aggressive season, lots of new work, Houston premieres, and a good dose of spectacular story ballets. Give us a glimpse of the chess game of putting together the season.

SW: I think of the ingredients as a big meal with several courses, and they all have to complement each other. I have a list of ballets I want the company to do, a list of choreographers, and ballets that I want to choreograph. Then there are the great works in the rep for us to return to; we also rotate the classic story ballets every four or five years. Those are the lists I draw from, and then there’s the budget!

AH: Each year the roster shuffles around a bit. Dancers come and go and that’s just part of life in a major dance company. Do you feel a different chemistry each year with the dancers?

SW: Everything is full of hope at the start of the year. The company always has a new feel when we begin the season. Ironically, so many of our greatest dancers are coming right out of the school, so by the time they get to the company we have already been working with them for a number of years. We also have about eight new corps members; we try to bring some people in from other companies because it creates a good stimulus. They get here and say, “You guys are really good; class is really great here.” Sometimes we can forget that. As for the new principals, we have several that are just at the start of their time, and that’s always exciting.

AH: Let’s talk about the work on your choreographic plate. Next up is The Four Seasons to Vivaldi’s deliciously famous music. I understand Tom Boyd has designed a set with a live oak tree. Can you talk about the challenge of mounting new story ballets?

SW: It’s a huge challenge. We are lucky in Houston that we have a lot of production time which lends itself to the kind the ground necessary to create that kind of work. Here I feel I have the right kind of support. All three of my new works are story ballets that require different kinds of acting. We are by far the strongest acting company in America. The Four Seasons follows four women through the life journey. It has a very period feeling, like watching a Merchant-Ivory film.

AH: How did you see The Merry Widow as the perfect season opener?

SW: It’s lovely to dance. I know it so well personally. I have danced several roles and have watched my parents and brother dance it as well. It’s one of the great romantic comic ballets and just sends you away with a smile.

AH: Speaking of smiling, is Cinderella going to be funny? I understand you have done some cinder-tweaking. How so?

SW: It’s a comedy. However, there is twist to it. There’s a strong leaning toward feminism. Cinderella is not a victim. She fights back and is her own person. When the ugly stepsisters pick on her, she beats them up. The ballet follows a path that is not what you expect but it ends up in the same place. In the end she chooses her own destiny.

AH: You return to Gershwin to lift us out of our winter blues. So Gershwin tells a story?

SW: Several, actually, all going on at once, kind of like a Robert Altman film.

AH: In June, the company premieres The Doll’s House based on István Márta’s Doll’s House Story for Percussion Ensemble. Should we be thinking a new take on Coppelia?

SW: No, not at all. The style is based in Japanese anime, so think teddy bears with axes. It’s a bit violent but with a tongue and cheek kind of wit. The story comes from the composer’s notes and it’s about a toy store where the dolls go to war. The piece addresses the futility of war. No one wins this war.

AH: Sounds timely. Do you see yourself the choreographer that will re-invent the story ballet?

SW: Oh no. I like to do them and I want to be successful, but am happy to be just one of the gang.

AH: The rep includes works by Kudela, Hans Van Manen, Balanchine, Bruce, Forysthe, Kylián – all but Balanchine are living giants of choreography. Of course it’s great to expose Houston audiences to the A-list choreographers but what about the next generation? Will the Cullen (where young choreographers got a chance to experiment) ever come back?

SW: I would love for the Cullen to be a regular part of what we do but there are restrictions, with touring and building a canon of master work. Hopefully by our dancers doing these works it will make them better choreographers.

AH: Houston has to share you with the rest of the world, I suppose it’s the neighborly thing to do. Where else are you setting new works?

SW: I will be doing works at San Francisco Ballet, in Hong Kong, and ABT is doing Clear again. I’ve cut back a lot. I didn’t want to travel so much anymore. I need to the time here to create.

AH: Any last thoughts on turning five in Houston? Did you make friends with the humidity, the mosquitoes, Tex-Mex food, insane drivers, and other things Houstonian?

SW: I love Houston. I love my house, and my neighborhood. We get to go home at lunch and visit our families and pets. It makes it such a fresh work environment.

AH: I imagine we will be having this conversation again in about five years.

SW: Yes. I imagine we will.

Houston Ballet presents The Merry Widow September 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16 and The Four Seasons September 20, 22, 23, 28, 29, and 30 at Wortham Center, Cullen Theater. Call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org.

Reprinted from Artshouston.

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