Artists of Houston Ballet II in Stanton Welch's A Dance in the Garden of Mirth  Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Artists of Houston Ballet II in Stanton Welch’s A Dance in the Garden of Mirth.
Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet II Rises to the Challenge.

Don’t let the number “II” throw you off, there’s nothing second class about Houston Ballet II. You can tell a lot about an organization from its training entity, and with HB II, the news is encouraging, as many have made the transition to a professional career, including a batch of promising apprentices this season.

Under the leadership of Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch, Shelly Power, academy director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy, and a top notch faculty, HB II is uniquely positioned to guide students toward a successful career path. With a repertory that includes classic and contemporary work, along with amble performance experience, the dancers emerge ready for the demands of today’s versatile ballet companies.

HB on the Road

Participation in international dance events provides a vital element of the dancers’ education. Over the years, numerous HB II dancers have taken honors at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne Dance Competition. This year, HB II member Joel Woellner placed sixth overall out of 78 international contestants, and won the Contemporary Dance Prize.  As the only student from an American school to be awarded a prize, the win was significant. “Each day was so amazing,” says Woellner, who has been training at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson’s Academy for two years. “I learned so much from the great teachers and candidates. I honed my skills of performing under pressure. Now, when I step on stage, I dance with more confidence.”

Power knows firsthand the learning potential of the Prix. “Joel came back to Houston with a strong sense of accomplishment because he was prepared to absorb all he could, stay the course, work hard, and manage many different levels of learning,” says Power, who has traveled worldwide to judge competitions and represent Houston Ballet’s Academy.

HB II performed in the final competition at the Prix this year, which is a great way to gain visibility for entire institution. “The performance is streamed live across the world, making this performance all that more special,” says Power. “Students, teachers, directors from around the world watched Houston Ballet II perform Stanton Welch’s Dance of the Garden of Mirth, and for some, this was the first time they saw Stanton’s choreography, and for others, it was the first time they saw Houston Ballet II.”

The Prix also allows Houston Ballet to recruit dancers from around the world, making it an incredibly important time for the Academy’s reputation. Traveling internationally, performing on a raked stage and the stress of competition each presented significant challenges. “They adapted easily, and had perhaps a once in a lifetime experience,” says Power. “They managed as if they were part of a bigger company making this fit in the mission of HB II, to experience what it is like to be a part of a company, touring, traveling, performing on different stages, and living the lifestyle of a dancer.”

Time on the road gives the dancers a chance to see what life on tour is really like, everything from how best to pack to staying healthy during a busy schedule. This year, HB II traveled to Switzerland and Toronto, Canada. “I have been fortunate enough to tour with Houston Ballet’s Marie.  I was able to absorb and soak in how the company operates under tour conditions,” says Woellner. “Not to mention watching the amazing Melody Mennite as Marie. Her inspiring performance has impacted my dancing so much.”

National Ballet School of Canada invited 18 schools from around the world to participate Assemblée Internationale 2013, and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy was one of them. HB II performed an excerpt of Welch’s Fingerprints along with Radiance, a world premiere by former Houston Ballet company member and rising choreographer Garrett Smith. The Assemblée has proved to be a great chance for the students to be among their peers in a non competitive learning environment.

Joel Woeller competes at the Prix de Lausanne. Photo: Gregory Batardon.

Joel Woeller competes at the Prix de Lausanne.
Photo: Gregory Batardon.

Training

A training company is only as good as its faculty. New ballet mistress Sabrina Lenzi is terrific addition to the faculty and a wonderful complement to renowned ballet master, Claudio Munoz. “The combination of the two of them makes HB II all that much stronger,” says Power. “We have really enhanced the girls experience over the past few years due to Sabrina’s coaching and nurturing full time. This has made a huge difference for the group as a whole.” Guest faculty includes seminal American choreographer Mark Morris, international known ballet artists such as John Meehan and John Eliasen, along with former Houston Ballet Principals Barbara Bears and Lauren Anderson.

Woellner feels fully prepared for company life. “The vigorous training schedule demands nothing more than 100% all the time,” says Woellner, who will join the main company as an apprentice next season. “Every day is physically and mentally draining.”

There’s also much more interaction between the Academy and HB II. “We now have students moving up the ladder from the lower levels into HB II. This has taken a long time to cultivate. It is also exciting to see our students like Michael Ryan who came to live in Houston at age 13 to train with us who is now in HB II,” says Power.

Frequent performance opportunities have always been embedded in Houston Ballet’s education philosophy. The proximity of Center of Dance to the Wortham Theater has enabled HB II dancers more opportunities to dance with the company.  The location and number of studios has streamlined the program to allow the students to do more in less time. Woellner danced in Stanton Welch’s world premiere of The Rite of Spring this season. Being a part of such a large scale ballet was an incredible experience,” he says. “What I enjoyed most of all was watching how a full length ballet is comes to life.”

HB II continues to be a beacon for the Academy and institution as it gets the word out about Houston and the training the school provides. “They are so talented that most audiences forget they are students, ” says Power. “It’s a win-win for both the audiences and Houston Ballet. HB II dancers are the real deal when it comes to providing a bridge to professional dance careers.”

—NANCY WOZNY

Reprinted from Playbill