Houston Ballet: Dance in the Heart of Texas

Article excerpt

On humid spring mornings ballerina Lauren Anderson usually opens all the windows of her sports car, slips in her Bonnie Raitt tape, turns up the volume, and sings all the way to her favorite place for breakfast. Her voice is almost as good as her dancing. The big, homey cafeteria across from Houston Ballet's headquarters serves some of the best grits in town. At the entrance, the waitress, familiar with the vibrant dancer, greets her with a big smile. Eagerly ordering the eggs, grapefruit, and grits that will get her through morning class and three afternoon rehearsals, Anderson says, "I started violin and ballet at the same time and loved them both. After a while my mother realized if I wanted to make a career in dance, I'd have to give up the violin but I never thought I'd make principal."

Her father, who was principal of the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Houston, is now a supervisor in the city's schools, and her mother is a musician and piano teacher. Anderson is one of the handful of African-American dancers who star in American ballet companies--one of many indications that the artistic director of Houston Ballet, Englishman Ben Stevenson, and the company that he has supervised for eighteen years, are trailblazers. Houstonians and those fortunate enough to have seen the fifty-five-member company on tour know that Houston Ballet has some of the best dancers performing some of the most interesting choreography in the country. The combination of Texas-style exuberance and British classicism is dynamite.

"The great thing about dancing here is that Ben allows us great freedom and nourishes it," continues Anderson. "We get such a wide variety of choreography to dance--Swan Lake, Giselle, and then also works by James Kudelka, Paul Taylor, and Toni Lander. Because Ben has such good contacts, he also brings in amazing people to coach us. We had Dame Margot Fonteyn for Swan Lake, Paul Taylor for Company B, Sir Kenneth MacMillan for Song of the Earth. Imagine getting the chance to work with people like that."

Breakfast finished, Anderson drives to the studios. They are in a large modern building in Montrose, a Houston neighborhood distinguished by its art galleries, funky restaurants, and clubs. She races across the parking lot, exchanges hellos with the staff, and heads for the classroom where Stevenson teaches almost every morning. Houston's facilities are superb--large classrooms, springy practice floors, extensive locker and wardrobe space, rehabilitation rooms with Pilates equipment, and spacious corridors and offices. The company's operating budget has grown from less than $1 million in 1975 to $11 million today, and the endowment now stands at $18.6 million, one of the largest of any dance company in the world. Big money means unusual security for the dancers: they have a forty-four-week guaranteed contract, the longest offered by any American ballet company.

Amember of Royal Ballet under the direction of Dame Ninette de Valois, and London Festival Ballet, director Ben Stevenson rounded out his classical career with appearances in London's West End in The Music Man, Half a Sixpence, and The Boys from Syracuse, and television performances with Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Shirley Bassey. Since taking over the direction of Houston Ballet, he has choreographed numerous full-length works, including Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.

A large man with white hair and a perpetual look of bemusement, Stevenson personifies worldliness and grace. Today he is dressed in a black-and-white striped shirt and white pants. In contrast, his dancers wear every color in the rainbow. Principal Li Cunxin (pronounced something like Lee Swenson), a recruit from the Beijing Dance Academy and the first dancer from China to study in the United States, has on a sea-blue T-shirt and deep green sweatpants. Anderson has a shirt emblazoned "Roma," the hometown of a close male friend, while several other young women wear pastel leotards and tiny, diaphanous skirts. …