Up Against the Barre

The Houston Ballet at six years of age has all the ingredients: two directors, solid dancers and a growing audience--but they're still looking for an image.

March 1974By Comments

This was the year of the Big Sell for the Houston Ballet. Texas’ only professional ballet company entered its sixth season hungry for audiences, subscribers, warm bodies&#151or, as General Director Henry Holth delicately phrased it, “higher earned income.” Holth did what he had to do&#151he hired an ad agency.

Enter Young & Rubicam, oldtimers in the ad game, who mounted a subscription campaign aimed squarely at ballet-shy proles: “Go someplace at night where you won’t eat peanuts! You go to a game somewhere, it’s nosh, nosh, nosh. Go to Houston Ballet at Jones Hall, and you feast on culture!”

Another of Young & Rubicam's pearls hinted, "How to look at some beautiful legs without upsetting your wife," but their trump appeal was, "Buy tickets to four ballets. Attend one. If you hate it, we'll give you all your money back. (But you really have to hate it)."

Four Houstonians hated it, but the others were either too enchanted or too embarrassed to say so. The Houston Ballet's 1973-74 season, a crucial year in this young company's development, was seen by a total of 150,000.

Behind the Big Sell was a ballet company in search of an image. Barely six years old, it boasted 31 dancers, a varied repertoire with glittering guest artists, a near-million budget, and a hefty Board of Trustees. After weathering a severe financial crisis in 1970, the company had begun growing in size, reputation, and quality.

But something was wrong. Houston Ballet rarely packed Jones Hall, not even when Dame Margot Fonteyn lent her presence. Only the Christmastime "Nutcracker" was sure of a full house, and as Henry Holth said, "Unfortunately, there are never enough 'Nutcrackers' in a repertoire." Somehow the company was failing to reach the "masses." Worse yet, the "classes" in culture-hungry Houston sniffed their bluenoses at the citys youngest major arts organization. When it came to choosing among the arts, only 3000 season subscribers chose the ballet, compared with 10,000-plus for the opera.

Failing to capture either big numbers or big money, Houston Ballet was forced to decide which audience to court. This was a fundamental decision affecting repertoire, programming and dancers. Houston Ballet's season opened with some widespread soulsearching.

Artistic Director Nina Popova was philosophical. She had seen the company grow from 15 dancers and a few works to its present size. "I'm interested in building this company, and it's got to get better. We're young," she emphasized, and indicated that the company's major problem was personnel. "What we need most are better dancers." Eugene Tanner, Ballet Master, agreed, "Our dancers' talent potential lies in the middle register. You can't really make the demands and get the kind of returns that you might in another company "

The dancers' own diagnosis differed from the management's. Principal dancer Leslie Peck suggested that the company needed its own resident choreographer. "We should be doing young ballets," she insisted. Another principal dancer defined the company's problem as: "Nina and Gene don't have a very good effect on each other. They sort of balance each other out. She doesn't want to step on his toes, and he doesn't want to step on hers." James DeBolt, a principal dancer who announced his intention to resign before the end of the season said quite simply, "This company needs artistic direction."

As Artistic Director, Popova is responsible for choosing company dancers, selecting works for the repertoire, and assigning dancers to roles. Her power is long-range and far-reaching, and she has the reputation for exercising that power absolutely. Tanner's duties as Ballet Master include rehearsing the company and critiquing performances. He is in daily contact with the dancers and is most responsible for keeping the company in training.

Such a partnership is a sensitive balance. Maybe a Balanchine and Kirstein I can make it work, but what most companies need is an autocrat.

During rehearsals in Jones Hall, Popova and Tanner sat in the audience, conferring and deferring. Dancers complained of lack of correction: "On tour Nina took over and conducted rehearsal and yelled at everybody and cleaned up things that needed it long ago." In defense, Tanner indicated that his hands are tied. Lacking the power to choose dancers for the company, he works with what he's got. "You can't achieve anything by badgering a dancer," he sighed. "Balanchine always told me you cannot get blood out of a stone."

Whatever the cause, the company's lack of focus was evident from beyond the footlights. Bluntly put, Houston Ballet danced like a football team without a quarterback. Onstage the company lacked coherence, unity, a common point of reference. Scattered here and there were interesting dancers, but the whole rarely jelled.

For example, in a ballet like William Dollar's "Constantia," which depends upon a dramatic tension between opposing forces of fragility and strength, Houston Ballet's performances were strangely disjointed. Principal dancer Shirley McMillan, a delicate blonde, was lyrical in her interpretation of Chopin's music but paled beside her counterpart, the dynamic Barbara Pontecorvo, who upset the balance of the work through sheer exuberance. A problem in direction.

Backstage, the atmosphere seemed complacent. A comfortable company which includes husband and wife teams and homegrown talent, Houston Ballet numbers eight Texans among its dancers, and one-third of the troupe are Southwesterners. They lack the hungry look of dancers scrambling to the top. "We're a bit too secure," Leslie Peck agreed, "and there doesn't ever seem to be enough competition."

Some dancers, however, revel in the relative comfort of dancing in Houston. Principal Leo Ahonen, after years on the road dancing in Finland, Russia, and Holland, welcomed the atmosphere of Houston Ballet: "There is not so much intrigue here," he said. "It's healthy. Some companies have too many of those gay people."

Shirley McMillan agreed that "Dancing in a small company gives you opportunities, but sometimes I think we need to get away to grow more." Jerry Schwender, husband of Leslie Peck and also a principal dancer, said frankly, "I don't think we'd be principals in any other company. Here you have to challenge yourself. If you're a disciplinarian, you can do it."

The man who might provide that discipline seems resigned. After 17 years with New York City Ballet, Eugene Tanner has softened his approach in Houston. "In this company you're dealing with kids, many of whom haven't danced professionally before. There's nothing to push on. You pump air into it but there is a slow leak that keeps it constantly deflated."

That "slow leak" may be, simply, inexperience. Six years is a short time in which to build a ballet company. On the face of it, Houston Ballet has already made remarkable progress and is slowly improving in its major resource&#151dancers. Members of the dance world no longer wonder what is "wrong" with a dancer if he joins a minor professional company. As New York becomes unlivable, it becomes undanceable. More and better dancers are maturing, searching for any job that guarantees union scale ($190 weekly base pay for corps de ballet in Houston).

Houston Ballet has reaped the rewards of decentralizing dance. Each year it auditions and hires better dancers, though Miss Popova lamented, "We never get first choice." Male dancers, especially, are hard to come by: "They give them all those magnets in New York- money, scholarships. It's like fighting General Motors. They have the cream, the absolute cream." Despite the "magic pull of New York," Popova has managed to hire, among her more notable dancers:

James DeBolt&#151Boasting, perhaps, the most impressive credentials in the company, DeBolt danced with Joffrey Ballet and New York City Ballet before problem knees slowed his career. Still young, DeBolt has provided romantic partnering as principal dancer with Houston Ballet. His forte, rather than fireworks, is "placement"&#151the correct execution of classical ballet technique. Though he is hampered by a slightly forward head, he is the kind of dancer who is satisfying, even when he's simply standing in place. Unfortunately DeBolt is leaving the company to accept a position in San Antonio.

Barbara Pontecorvo&#151Clearly the rising star of the company, Pontecorvo is a soloist but will be elevated to principal dancer in 1974-5. Physically strong and constantly fighting a weight problem, she electrifies audiences with her breathtaking balance and spinning fouettes. Easily the most communicative of Houston Ballet's dancers, she makes up in dynamism what she lacks in refinement.

Soili Arvola and Leo Ahonen&#151Husband and wife, these Finnish principals came to Houston from San Francisco Ballet. Bravura dancers with a Bolshoi flavor, Arvola and Ahonen generally appear in pas de deux rather than being integrated into full-company works. Ahonen's elfin appeal and featherweight lightness balance Arvola's brittle quality, sheer strength, and technical prowess.

Lisa Chalmers&#151Baby ballerina of the company, 15-year-old Chalmers graduated from the company school into the corps de ballet. Her dancing lacks attack, but her willowy line and elongated arms display the most promise in the company.

Leslie Peck and Jerry Schwender&#151Another married couple, Peck and Schwender are the meat and potatoes of the company. Consistent, solid dancers, they excel in William Dollar's "Le Combat."

Shirley McMillan&#151The only dancer remaining from the original 1968 company, McMillan is a deceptively fragile, lyrical principal dancer.

Other dancers in Houston Ballet range from the disciplined Mary Margaret Holt and the womanly Denise Smokowski, both soloists, to corps members such as Nancy Onizuka, a rather wooden dancer frequently seen in solo roles, and two underused but promising males, Juliu Horvath and Whit Haworth.

Popova's use of her dancers can be imaginative. James DeBolt was well cast as the Spanish suitor in "Paquita," bringing just enough restraint to a schmaltzy role. Mary Margaret Holt and Denise Smokowski blended beautifully in the same ballet (while the other solo couple, Nancy Onizuka and Lisa Chalmers, looked a little like Mutt and Jeff). A dancer like Shirley McMillan seemed typecast in saccharine, frilly roles, but her finest moment came in "Concerto Barocco," where she was challenged by Balanchine's lean, curt movement.

Oddly, principals Leo Ahonen and Soili Arvola seemed detached from the remainder of the dancers, rarely appearing in full-company works such as "Napoli." Ahonen, however, feels that "This is Miss Popova's genius. Other dancers can do those big ballets, but grand pas de deux, only few people can do those."

Dancers, obviously, are only as good as their choreography, and Houston Ballet's repertoire is a mixed bag of almost 25 works, including:

"Concerto Barocco"&#151George Balanchine's classical ballet set to Bach's "Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins." "Barocco" moves in little eddies and flows, an alert exercise in baroque embellishment. Balanchine mirrors, shadows, and fences with the Bach, rather than merely matching musical configuration with movement. As Popova said of this work, "Not doing Balanchine is like an actor not doing Shakespeare. This is the literature of our day."

"La Favorita"&#151Call this the literature of yesterday. Principal dancer Soili Arvola choreographed this pas de deux for herself and Leo Ahonen. Replete with gratuitous climaxes minus an interconnecting tissue of movement, "Favorita" is one of the weakest works in the repertoire. A typical moment occurs when Arvola begins a solo variation with a staccato backbend. Miss Popova reportedly never saw the complete work until performance and admits, "It's not my favorite."

"Suspension"&#151A cerebral modern dance work by May O'Donnell (member of an early Martha Graham troupe), "Suspension" approximates the movements of a giant mobile which provides the stage's only scenery. A fascinating study in the peripheries of balance. Even though members of Houston Ballet are working in a foreign vocabulary, "Suspension" is one of their finest efforts as they slowly muster the sustained tension necessary to the work.

The remaining works in the repertoire are predominantly classical ballet but include contemporary or "young" works, such as James Clouser's "Through a Glass Lightly," and modern works by such choreographers as Anna Sokolow.

One of the major difficulties concerning any repertoire is "programming," the selection and arrangement of works for a balanced evening. Here, too, Popova has her problems. In November she programmed an entire three-day repertory schedule which included only four of the company's male dancers.

In another series she mixed two William Dollar works on a four-ballet program. Dollar is an acquired taste, not the kind of choreographer one swallows easily. He creates ballets with a heavy hand. Though his forte is drama, he has choreographed lyrical works which are lush, but uncertain. Houston Ballet in October performed his best-known work, "Le Combat," back-to-back with his earlier "Constantia." While "Combat" is the hard-edged and stylized drama of a Christian warrior and a pagan girl, "Constantia" seems to be Dollar's attempt to reconcile lyric with dramatic ballet. Together, they seemed too many Dollars for the money.

These problems in programming, use of dancers, and artistic direction ultimately suggest at least one common source: indecision as to which audience Houston Ballet must reach. Though the ballet's 1973-4 advertising campaign seemed aimed at roller derby fans, its programming included highly cerebral works. While the company campaigned for the kind of audience usually found in the Astrodome or Houston's Music Hall, the ballet's board of directors insisted upon remaining in the fashionable and ornate Jones Hall.

"I've always wanted to play the Music Hall," Miss Popova said wistfully. "Unless your hair is teased up to here and you have a new gown, you can't go to Jones Hall. If you happen to be walking on the street in an old raincoat and want to go see a ballet, you should be able to go. But in this country you go to a ballet primarily to be seen, not to see."

Caught in the middle, Popova continues to walk a tightrope, offering a "La Favorita" for those who demand circus, a "Suspension" for more esoteric taste. She caters equally to the likes of Miss Ima Hogg, who appears at intermissions resplendent in cape and cane, and to the Sharpstown matron who consoles her spouse, "Now you can't complain, that last one had plenty of action."

That's where Houston Ballet is in 1973-4, trying the Big Sell without being sure of what it's selling.

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