The Houston Ballet's new artistic director, Stanton Welch, talks about growing up in Australia; creating the evening-length work, Tales of Texas; and replacing Ben Stevenson.
Ever wonder if an Aussie can two-step? Find out this month when the Houston Ballet premieres Tales of Texas, the first evening-length program presented by its new artistic director, Melbourne-native Stanton Welch. Though he assumed the position in Houston just eight months ago, Welch has wasted no time getting in touch with his new home; Tales of Texas is an unabashed tribute to the Lone Star State, incorporating elements of Southern folklore, country and western music, line dancing, and the legend of Pecos Bill.
Welch became one of the youngest artistic directors of any American ballet company in July 2003 when he took the helm from Ben Stevenson, who served as the Houston Ballet’s artistic director for 27 years. Here the 34-year-old Welch talks about crafting a ballet especially for Houston, growing up in a house of dance royalty, and filling the shoes of a legend.
texasmonthly.com: Congratulations on your new position at the Houston Ballet and the upcoming premiere of Tales of Texas. How did you create the original concept for a Texas-themed ballet, and why did you choose this to be your first full-length program for Houston?
Stanton Welch: I’d been asked in 2000—long before I knew I was going to be the artistic director—to create a full-length work for the Houston Ballet, and I had presented several concepts to then artistic director Ben Stevenson and managing director C. C. Conner. They were intrigued by this concept and thought that for Houston it could really work. Later, after they had already commissioned me for Tales of Texas, as fate would have it, I ended up becoming the artistic director.
texasmonthly.com: What aspects of Texas’s culture, history, and folklore inspired you during the conception and creation of the ballet?
SW: One of the first subjects that appealed to me was the idea of Texans as pioneers, journeying from a very civilized environment to this land that is harsh. I wanted to illustrate how tremendously difficult it must have been for those people to find a way of learning to farm the land, of learning to find water—and the complete cultural change that goes along with that struggle. So that became my inspiration for the first act of the ballet, where we interpret life on the Texas frontier.
texasmonthly.com: In the second act, however, you completely change gears, incorporating music from Patsy Cline, country and western line dancing, and the two-step. Being Australian, how did you familiarize yourself with those elements of American culture?
SW: Most people don’t know this, but my generation in Australia grew up with square dancing and two-stepping like many people in this country did. But of course, like urban youth culture in America, the city kids in Australia look down on that stuff, and I never was a part of it, I never wanted to do it. But then I got to Texas, and sure enough, where did I end up but at a country and western bar—and I ended up just loving it.
texasmonthly.com: From the perspective of a choreographer, what attracted you to country and western dance, and why did you choose to include that style of dance in your ballet?
SW: Dancing in my generation is very isolated; you’re out on the dance floor and you’re dancing away but you don’t need anyone else to dance with you, whereas during the period that’s portrayed in Tales of Texas, you would pick someone, ask permission, and lead your partner to the floor, and at the end of the dance, you would say thank you. I love the community of that. It really reminds me of a conversation—it turns dance into a way to meet people, and I thought that should be an important part of the ballet.
texasmonthly.com: And finally, the third movement features the legend of Pecos Bill. How and why did you select Pecos Bill, this giant of American folklore and Texas folklore, as a central character in your ballet? What aspect of his character did you most want to illustrate?
SW: In creating the character for Pecos Bill, I wanted to do something different and fresh. Because he is so well known and he is such a part of American folklore, most people associate him with all these impossible accomplishments. I wanted to explore his motives rather than his extraordinary feats. Why did he become a legend? After considering it, what really struck me were Pecos Bill’s relationships with the three central women in his life: his mother, the coyote that raises him, and finally, Sue. Each of these women leaves him in a very heartbreaking way, and I decided to make that heartbreak the centerpiece of this movement.
texasmonthly.com: Do you view the legend of Pecos Bill as a tragedy in the classical sense?
SW: Yes, in a way, my version of Pecos Bill is a very tragic interpretation, because his isolation and his need to be a legend are driven by the loss of these three great loves of his life. His story is one that’s full of dark, lonely elements that are often overlooked, but they’re universal elements that translate well onto the stage.
texasmonthly.com: Considering your Australian background, was it a challenge for you to approach all these facets of Texas’s culture and history?
SW: In a funny way, I think that I could probably have a closer understanding of Texas than someone from New York or California could. I’ve always found the cultures of Australia and Texas to be similar—the people, the national sense of folklore—and I think that connection comes from an intimate relationship with the land. Both Australia and Texas have that history of the pioneer struggle, and we are both cowboy cultures, so these subjects are not really unfamiliar or inaccessible to me.
texasmonthly.com: What has surprised you most about working and living in Texas so far?
SW: It has been a constant surprise to me how big the arts community is in Houston, and how few people in America know that. It’s very sophisticated—painting, theater, opera, dance. It has everything, not just one or two productions, but major-league companies. People on the East Coast and the West Coast are oblivious to that.
texasmonthly.com: Let’s talk a little about your background and how you became involved in the dance world. Although your parents, Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones, were stars of the Australian Ballet in the sixties and seventies and you grew up with constant exposure to dance, neither you nor your brother started studying ballet until later in life. Why not?
SW: To go into dance was a choice I made entirely on my own when I was around seventeen years old. My brother, Damien, and I had been around dance so much growing up, constantly watching our parents from a backstage perspective, that the whole thing had really lost its mystique. Honestly, it just looked like hard work to us and we weren’t interested. But once my parents stopped being so involved in the dance world after their retirement, we started watching it from the audience perspective. There was something from that perspective that really drew me in because it makes everything look so beautiful and hides all the pain and hard work that you see from backstage. Once I came to that point, I knew I had to dance. I went to my parents and said I’d like to learn, and if anything, they were hesitant about that, because I was relatively old to be starting at that point—but we discussed it and they agreed to let me.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think your late start in dance has influenced you as a choreographer, or as an artistic director?
SW: Because I was older when I started ballet, I had made an active decision that that was what I wanted to do as a career. I run into many dancers, males especially, who aren’t really dedicated, but that was never a problem for me. I knew straightaway after I’d chosen dance that I was 100 percent committed. I always wanted to be a part of the whole process of it—choreography, music, the conceptual side. I didn’t want to be told what to do and then go home at six and forget about it. I wanted to go home and keep thinking about it, keep working at it.
texasmonthly.com: Ben Stevenson, your predecessor as artistic director of the Houston Ballet, has also acted as a mentor to you. What do you identify as his legacy to the city of Houston and to the dance world? How do you hope to build upon that legacy in the future?
SW: Ben’s legacy is this wonderful company. He couldn’t have a greater legacy than having a company of this size and standard, with all the facilities that we have available to us. As a choreographer coming here, I was always amazed at what a great company it is. That’s his wonderful legacy—a company that’s producing innovative works and growing. I’d like to keep developing that, to expand a body of original work and be recognized for it, and to make the Houston Ballet a place that all dancers and choreographers and students want to come to.
The Houston Ballet will present Tales of Texas March 11-21.