Houston Ballet's Jessica Collado and Kelly Myernick in Stanton Welch's The Rite of Spring  Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Houston Ballet’s Jessica Collado and Kelly Myernick in Stanton Welch’s The Rite of Spring.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

New Works at Houston Ballet

A pensive Mireille Hassenboehler sits in the corner waving her hands in quick patterns while counting and glancing down at her notes. Completely absorbed in the process, Hassenboehler navigates her way though the new passages she has just learned from choreographer Edwaard Liang, for his new ballet, Murmuration, premiering this month at Houston Ballet. The evening also includes the premiere of Stanton Welch’s The Rite of Spring, set to the iconic Stravinsky score, and Mark Morris’ Pacific.

“I’m figuring out the math,” quips Hassenboehler, with her characteristic generous grin. Just the spirited look in her eyes tells me she’s jazzed about this new ballet. The room quiets to a watchful silence while Hassenboehler and Simon Ball dance the pas de deux Liang created on them. Although the paint is still wet, it’s evident that the pair is already delving deep into Liang’s sensuous vocabulary, finding ways to make it their own and mining its many treasures. I’ve been watching both of these dancers for a decade now, but for this moment, it’s feels as if I’m just now discovering their chemistry. Fresh moves have a way of bringing forth qualities we have yet to discover in a dancer.

New work is nutrition to the dancer’s soul. It’s the dual territory of challenge and frustration, the very things dancers need to move to the next level of artistry. Having a fresh set of eyes gives each dancer a chance to be seen in a different way. New choreographers come in with no baggage on a dancer’s history. The studio becomes a blank slate. For the dancer, it’s an opportunity to move beyond known abilities, to reach out of familiar territory, pushing the bounds of their limitations. There’s also a lot of redundancy in a ballet career, from the yearly chore of The Nutcracker to the morning grand plies. Learning new material floods a dancer’s nervous system with new information, often leading to stronger dancing.

Whether a dancer is at the top of their career, like Hassenboehler or Ball, or in the corps or rising dancers, the rigorous process of making a new dance levels the playing field. Everyone is a beginner.

Edwaard Liang and Artists of the Houston Ballet rehearsing Murmuration Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Edwaard Liang and Artists of the Houston Ballet rehearsing Murmuration.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Soloist Lauren Strongin enters the studio with a new choreographer ready for the unknown. “The key is to be totally present, and ready to soak up the details,” says Strongin. “I’m a shy person, but I try to push myself, stand in front and dance in the first group.” Liang’s process has been particularly engaging for her.  He asked every dancer to create his or her own solo, a task that came with some trepidation. “I have not choreographed before, so it did not come naturally to me,” Strongin recalls. The solos will be incorporated into the final piece, an idea Strongin finds exciting and confidence building.

Houston Ballet is Jim Nowakowski’s first company. He went from the rigorous, albeit tedious, world of ballet competitions—where

you polish your Don Q variation until it shines—to a  bustling company, where he is constantly learning new work. Welch’s Rite of Spring poses a different challenge to the newly promoted demi soloist. Experimentation is ever present. “He comes in with a clear vision,” says Nowakowski. “We already know Stanton’s style, and he knows what we can do, yet he will have me try all kinds of crazy jumps to find something I’ve never done before. I love that.”

Although Morris’ Pacific is not a new work, it’s new to the company. Nowakowski sees it as an opportunity to deepen his understanding of the seminal American choreographer’s work. “It definitely puts me out of my comfort zone. The musicality is so precise. I have to think differently.”

Houston Ballet’s dancers dared to travel uncharted territory when working with Aszure Barton during the creation process of Angular Momentum, a  tour-de-force ballet rich with Barton’s idiosyncratic kinetic signature. Not only was her vocabulary totally foreign, but so to was her way of building a piece. The experience ended up bolstering Strongin’s confidence because she and her cohorts traveled such a long way from rehearsal to performance. “It was mind expanding. I feel mentally more active and my dancing changed,” recalls Strongin. “Nothing was permanent. I had to turn myself over to her. In the end, it was liberating.”


Houston Ballet
The Rite of Spring
March 7-17, 2013