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.

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—or, as General Director Henry Holth delicately phrased it, “higher earned income.” Holth did what he had to do—he 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

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