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New Dancers & Epic Works: Houston Ballet’s Fall Season

New Dancers & Epic Works: Houston Ballet’s Fall Season

Houston Ballet Principals Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh rehearsing Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, Sept. 22-24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Photos by Amitava Sarkar.

Connor Walsh and Nozomi Iijima in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

Watching a rehearsal of Mayerling I witnessed a company in motion in more ways than the splendid dancing in the room. Taking in the group energy coming from dancers from 14 different countries, and even five native Texans, there’s a new feeling in the air at Houston Ballet. With all that talent in one studio, the promise of the season was palpable. Hurricane Harvey had other ideas, but for now, with Center for Dance is back open, and the company is back in full steam ahead mode.

Sure, there was a lot of thinking on one’s feet but dance people are good at that. Flux is a constant in the ballet world as each season begins with  a different mix of  dancers standing in front of Houston Ballet’s artistic director Stanton Welch. With 60 dancers total, this year’s company has the largest influx of new dancers during Welch’s tenure. “They may be young, but in ballet terms, they are very experienced dancers, that come from such companies as Dutch National and Hong Kong Ballet” says Welch.

Between HB II members moving into the company and talented newcomers fresh out of ballet academies and international companies, it’s going to be a great time to spot future principals. And the fact that my 2013 Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” selection Nozomi Iijima is returning is also thrilling. This pocket-sized powerhouse soloist is always riveting to watch. “It’s so much fun to be back dancing here. The dancers inspire me everyday,” says Iijima. “I’m glad to be back to my second home.”

For Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh, entering his 14th season, getting a new batch of colleagues is downright refreshing. “It’s important to change your surroundings every once in a while because it can positively influence the way you look at yourself,” says Walsh. “The dance world can be competitive, and it’s important to always be absorbing fresh perspectives as well as being kept on your toes by the ‘new guys’ in town.”

That said, it’s a big shift, and with this many newcomers the pressure to bring one’s “A” game is a constant. I could feel that in the room too. “A company is like a family, and when there’s a lot of new people it takes some time to redevelop that bond, but it can also bring fresh energy if you allow it,” says Walsh. “I’ve still got some new names to lock in, but as a senior dancer in the company, I feel a sense of responsibility to make everyone feel welcome and a part of the team.”

The season opener Poetry in Motion, has been moved to Oct. 26 & 27, with Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling moving into the opening spot on Sept. 22-24. Both shows will be at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Sara Webb and Simon Ball in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), which will be performed as part of Poetry in Motion, Oct. 26 & 27 at the Hobby Center.

Mayerling is hands-down the must-see dance event in Texas this season, especially since Houston Ballet is the first North American ballet company to perform this masterwork. “Mayerling is the clear stand-out for me this year,” says Walsh. “It’s made even more special knowing that the company has been working for quite some time to bring this work to the Wortham stage.”

Mayerling is based on the true and harrowing story of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. If this doesn’t seem like a typical ballet, that’s the point; MacMillan was first to move away from fairies, princes and happy endings. “He turned to history, to dark stories exposing the flaws of humanity,” says Welch.

Walsh is in full agreement of this historic step for the company. “Mayerling is not a ballet that is very widely performed, which may be in part because of its controversial material, but it depicts a fascinating part of history and is choreographed by a master storyteller,” says Walsh. “It’s been a respected part of Royal Ballet’s repertoire for some time and it is a huge honor for this company to take on the responsibility of bringing it to American audiences.”

MacMillan has a rather storied relationship with Houston Ballet, having served as associate choreographer from 1989-1991, and the company can claim five of his ballets already in the rep: Song of the Earth, Gloria, Elite Syncopations, Solitaire and Manon. Walsh adds, “This deep, dark and dramatic step into the world of Mayerling will highlight the artistic talents of this company.”

Mayerling became a game changer for male ballet dancers. Rudolf dances seven different pas de deux with five women and is on stage nearly the entire ballet. The role is grueling on every level and requires extreme physical and emotional stamina. It requires a mature dancer with brilliant partnering skills and a dashing presence, all of which Walsh brings to the Mayerling table.

“This is a dream role for me,” says Walsh. “There aren’t many leading male roles in ballet with this much for an artist to sink his teeth into. Not only is this role filled with rich emotional complexity, but also it is renowned for being one of the most physically demanding roles out there. This will be without a doubt one of the greatest challenges of my career.”

Welch also gets a chance to show off the company’s considerable acting chops. Because of the amount of sheer drama in the ballet, Welch describes Mayerling as “a Thanksgiving feast of emotions.” It’s a big ballet with an epic scale. “The sets are beautiful and old school,” says Welch. “It’s a big, lavish period piece.”

After Mayerling, we return to more pure delight and gorgeous dancing. The newly renamed Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance promises a smorgasbord of dance on Dec. 1, and is the best way to introduce people to the scope of the company and its current and upcoming repertoire.

Welch’s elaborate Nutcracker, Nov. 24-Dec. 28, moves into year two with even more polish and pizzazz. Breaking in a new Nut takes time and tweaking, and that was in the plan from the get-go. Whether you made it out once or twice to see Welch’s new take on this holiday classic, I guarantee there is something that you missed. One trip is for costume and set gawking alone. “It’s designed for multiple viewings,” quips Welch, knowing full well that there is a lot to take in during this production.

For any ballet company, every autumn is a new beginning. Between the repertoire and new dancers, it’s going to be an exciting time for all. Walsh is ready. “I’m entering this season with renewed hunger and passion for what I do.”

—NANCY WOZNY