Houston Ballet Takes a Trip to Hell to Deliver a ‘COVID Blessing’

On March 10, Houston Ballet will launch the first in a series of short dance films by Artistic Director Stanton Welch. Choreographed to folk-bluegrass ensemble The Dead South’s similarly-titled debut album, Welch’s In Good Company will be unveiled one song at a time throughout the spring, on the ballet company’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channel.

Like the songs, each film in the series will have its own concept and flavor but overarching themes will emerge and In Good Company will come together as a complete collection.

“The idea is that this group of really cool people are on their way to hell and they’re going to have a party as they go,” says Welch mischievously.

Having listened to the tracks of the band’s album (titled Good Company), that image is easy to conjure. While the devil went down to Georgia with his fiddle, The Dead South seem to have smuggled his banjo into Saskatchewan. The four-piece Canadian ensemble layers vocals that marry Eddie Vedder’s growly baritone with Kurt Cobain’s emotive break over the energetic string work of skilled bluegrass musicians.

The lyrics are raw and their sound is cinematic but Welch says it is the rhythms of The Dead South’s work that caught him as he began to see their songs as a collection of dances. He shares that he’s remained sensitive to what are occasionally harsh lyrics that reveal the gritty imperfections of life, sometimes playing with them in opposition, using editing techniques to distract from their intensity or addressing them directly through the choreography. Overall, Welch says, he has focused primarily on the cadence and mood of the music during the development of the series.

Welch worked closely with David Rivera as the company chasséd into filmmaking. Rivera is Houston Ballet’s Associate Director of Audio/Video Services and a former dancer himself. Working as a team, they each contributed ideas to the process. Welch says a personal revelation was to revisit the music videos of the MTV era as well as videos released by musical artists today.

“There’s some extraordinary dance on film in little three-minute songs,” exclaims Welch. “That was really inspirational to me.”

Amid the chaos of a pandemic spilling unwelcomed into 2021, Welch continues to lead his company with care and as much intentionality as possible. He describes himself as “the safe parent” who wants to make sure he’s not putting dancers at risk with attempts of reopening or conducting business-as-usual too quickly.

Welch’s last video premiere, Restoration, was filmed outdoors throughout the city of Houston with company members wearing masks and street shoes. That film, released in November 2020, was also set to music by The Dead South. A kind of declaration of the company’s resolve to stay visible and connected during physical isolation from its audience, Welch considers Restoration a separate entity from In Good Company.

“This is ballet shoes, double tours and spotlights,” says Welch of a recent shoot at Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance. According to Welch, you might expect each film of In Good Company to change in look or setting but the company members are filming the series largely as individual solos, indoors with no masks. Only Rivera’s editing will bring the dancers together into the same visual space.

Welch describes learning how to engage the camera and dancer in a kind of pas de deux and adjusting to the microscopic level of detail necessary in choreography for film as happy outcomes of a push into new territory. The director calls these “COVID blessings,” a term he picked up from one of his company’s dedicated supporters as she reacted to the welcome “wins” of a frequently unpredictable year.

The sense of community and genuine connection with the art and artists of Houston Ballet is what such local subscribers reveal to Welch they have missed most during this year of pandemic-induced isolation.

“For us, it became about our city, our audience and our connection,” he says of the company’s response to these concerns.

Houston Ballet has sought to create a genuine sense of community with their fans by adopting video conferencing and by presenting work and their process online with a high degree of access to the company. Houston Ballet is releasing what may seem to be a surprising amount of content and new work on no-cost platforms. As a result, its administrators have found the company is reaching an audience well beyond its home city.

“You mean we can access the world?!” Welch says jokingly of the discovery. The rewards go beyond revenue: according to Welch, the company received close to a third of their donations in 2020 from people who have never seen Houston Ballet live.

Accessibility is among the many lessons COVID is teaching ballet companies. Welch acknowledges that in the pandemic’s wake American ballet companies in particular are forced to think more deeply about the preservation of their work, not just for posterity but in a way that makes it marketable regardless of proximity.

“To have our dancers on film—not in chaos but in full glory—we have to start investing in those recordings as many European companies already have,” Welch says.

Looking ahead to the destiny of In Good Company, Welch speaks excitedly of what will eventually be a complete work packaged in digital format. He’s equally enthusiastic regarding his strong connection with the band members of The Dead South, who are well educated in the arts outside of music. Welch hopes to work with the Canadian band one day soon to present a live collaboration.

For now, Houston Ballet fans all over the world can look forward to the virtual experience of In Good Company—a COVID blessing emerging near the anniversary of our paradigm shift into an infernal year.