No Milestone Unturned: Honoring Stanton Welch’s 20-Year Contribution to Houston Ballet

Stanton Welch has provided visionary leadership for Houston Ballet since picking up its creative torch in 2003. As the organization commemorates his 20th anniversary as Artistic Director with the continuation of their celebratory 2023-24 Season, it reflects on the past two decades by highlighting some of the brilliant work added to its repertoire during Welch’s tenure, including his own.

With six world premieres, it also looks ahead to a historic partnership with co-artistic director Julie Kent and a future where Welch’s influence continues to resonate through relevant and innovative storytelling, the elevation of the company’s national and world-wide reputation, and a commitment to nurturing the next generation of dancers and choreographers.

Houston Ballet’s annual Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance, by definition a celebration, honored Welch’s anniversary. The December program’s first act featured excerpts from one-act ballets Cline Time and Tapestry. His short film Restoration and an exhilarating live selection from his made-for-camera series In Good Company, both made during the stage-darkening COVID19 pandemic, acknowledged the resilience of the dance community and Welch’s commitment to artistic expression even in the most trying circumstances.

The bill also included selections from six of Welch’s full-length ballets, all of which were created on the company. From Sylvia’s army of mythological huntresses to the royal hunting party in Swan Lake to a dinner party with history’s most famous party girl Marie (Antoinette), each excerpt demonstrated Welch’s ability to create a memorable scene and bring characters to life through choreography.

This winter, Houston Ballet will present Welch’s Cinderella. Feb. 22-March 3, 2024. Created in 1997 for his then-home company, The Australian Ballet, Welch’s approach fractures the traditional rags to riches fairytale in a way that resonates with modern audiences. His Cinderella does not take the abuses of her step-family lying down, nor does she pine for a prince.

Cinderella acts out because she’s gone through a lot after losing her mother. Those raised in single-parent households and integrated families, whether decades or centuries ago, can relate. “In my ballets, I try to make all of the characters a little more human,” says Welch. “Even the bad guys have reasons [for their behavior].”

Welch will follow Cinderella with the Houston premiere of Bespoke (March 7-17), a ballet in one act he created for Helgi Tómasson of San Francisco Ballet (SFB), to honor the artistic director and principal choreographer’s retirement in 2022.The piece explores the variety of relationships different dancers have with dance throughout their career, including at the end of it.

“Helgi’s work was about making his company stronger, not just for himself,” reflects Welch, who says his aspirations for Houston Ballet were inspired by his mentor’s drive for excellence.

As its title suggests, the roles in Bespoke are very specific to the steps, which were developed on SFB’s dancers. Welch looks forward to the “good challenge” of transposing the work on new dancers. The mixed repertory program will also include the Houston premiere of Overgrown Garden by Jiří Kylián and the fast-paced Filigree and Shadow by Australian choreographer Tim Harbour.

Beyond the creative nourishment that has sharpened the technical agility and artistry of its company members over the last two decades, Houston Ballet’s partnership with Houston Methodist Hospital reflects a holistic approach to the dancers’ well-being thanks to Welch’s influence. By providing crucial health and physical therapy services, this collaboration ensures that the artists at Houston Ballet not only excel on stage but also enjoy long and fulfilling careers.

Investing in new work is central to the Houston Ballet’s identity. Welch has propelled his versatile company onto the world stage, regularly taking their diverse repertoire on the road to international acclaim. As Welch looks towards the future, there is a sense of continuity and anticipation. Welch’s vision for Houston Ballet is to reach even broader audiences by cementing the company’s work and legacy on film.

“People don’t have any idea we have one of the biggest stages in the country. We want to show the world that we have a full, thriving academy and tremendous dancers.”

Houston Ballet’s Academy, a breeding ground for future stars, has flourished under Welch’s guidance. Over 60% of the company’s dancers trained at the academy, including company members and emerging choreographers Jacquelyn Long, Jack Wolff, and Jindallae Bernard. The inclusion of their trio of world premieres in the Jubilee performance underscored Welch’s dedication to continuing Houston Ballet’s long history of developing talent from within to shape a new generation of choreographers.

Welch has touched every facet of Houston Ballet’s recent growth and identity. He has curated a diverse repertoire, commissioning works from globally-acclaimed choreographers such as John Neumeier, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Justin Peck. The hundreds of premieres presented by Houston Ballet over the last 20 years have not only enriched the company’s repertoire and attracted top talent, but positioned Houston as a hub for world-class ballet.

The construction of the Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance in 2011 is a monumental achievement for the arts in Houston, and stands as a testament to Welch’s vision of creating a lasting legacy for ballet in the city. The facility, a six-story marvel built brick-by-brick for ballet, has become a cornerstone of Houston’s cultural landscape, symbolizing the city’s devotion to the arts.

“For 100 years that will live there with the Wortham and be like the Royal Opera Houses in Paris and London and Denmark and Russia—landmarks of Houston’s art scene.”

To close his company’s season, Welch looks back at The Four Seasons, a one-act he created for Houston Ballet early in his tenure. Set to Vivaldi’s four famous violin concerti of the same name, it depicts the Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter of a woman’s life and will be preceded on the program by three compelling works, including a world premiere by Dwight Rhoden. The Four Seasons hasn’t been performed since its debut 16 years ago.

For Houston Ballet’s Jubilee of Dance finale, Welch chose Tchaikovsky’s beloved Piano Concerto, No. 1 for his latest world premiere. Vi et animo, commonly translated to mean strength and courage or heart and soul, embraces the emotional journey of its accompaniment as Welch shows off the talented artists of Houston Ballet and Houston Ballet II and looks ahead toward their futures.

Leading with strength, courage, heart and soul, Stanton Welch’s two-decade journey with Houston Ballet has been an epic success, and there’s a palpable excitement for the chapters yet to be written under his co-direction with Kent about the vibrant and enduring future for Houston Ballet.