A SILVER ANNIVERSARY, AND A GREAT LEAP FORWARD

By Andrew Edmonson, Houston Ballet Director of Marketing & PR

May 2012  marks a very special moment in Houston Ballet’s history:  the 25th anniversary of the opening of Wortham Theater Center.  Houston Ballet’s first season in Wortham Theater Center was a transformative epoque in the life of the company, and it catapulted both Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera to an international level.   Over the next seven months, we will be sharing memories of this singular time in the company’s history with occasional entries on our blog from artists who lived through this dizzying moment.

Wortham Theater Center

Tonight (Thursday, May 10, 2012) the Pink Ribbons Project brings together the city’s leading performing arts organizations to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of Wortham Theater Center as part of Pink at the Brown, a one-night only performance benefitting breast cancer education, research and treatment.

Pink at the Brown is a fitting way to celebrate this milestone in the company’s history.  Twenty-five years ago, a glittering gala celebration unfolded on the stage of the Wortham to inaugurate the new facility.  It was hosted by comedian and operaphile Tony Randall and produced by George Stevens. Houston Ballet Principal Dancers Janie Parker and Li Cunxin danced artistic director Ben Stevenson’s Esmeralda pas de deux, the full ballet company danced the finale from Harald Lander’s Etudes.  Houston Grand Opera presented act two of La bohème.  The U. S. Army Herald Trumpets saluted with fanfares, and a parade of luminaries danced, sang, played, spoke or joked: comedian Art Buchwald, singers Hildegard Behrens and Diahann Carroll, dancers Gloria Rodolfo Dinzel and Tommy Tune, and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

David Glockley and Ben Stevenson at construction site.
Photo by Phyllis Hand

The opening of Wortham Theater Center was a key moment in the civic and cultural life of Houston in the 1980s. Built at the height of the 1980s oil bust, the $66 million facility was constructed entirely with private money, on two blocks of land donated by the City of Houston, and was completed four months ahead of schedule and under budget.  The project was championed by Houston’s first female mayor, Kathryn J. Whitmire,  as a way to position Houston as a cosmopolitan, sophisticated city of the world.  Psychologically, the completion of Wortham Theater Center was a signal moment for a city that had been battered by an economic recession and job losses.

Wortham Theater Center under construction

Having its own theater also allowed Houston Ballet to expand its subscription season performances from one weekend to two weekends, giving the dancers more performance opportunities.  (Prior to 1987, the company had danced in Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, and was limited in the number of performances it could give because of the venue’s exceedingly busy schedule and competition for open dates.)    At the end of the first of Romeo and Juliet performances in September 1987, a Houston Chronicle headline enthused, “Houston Ballet finishes best week of its history.” (September 7, 1987)

The grand opera house stage of Wortham Theater Center also provided Houston Ballet with a new platform on which to stage lavish new full-length productions of both traditional works of the classical repertoire (Ben Stevenson’s The Sleeping Beauty [1990] and Coppélia [1992] and Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake [2006] and La Bayadére [2010]) and to commission a series of new, original full-length works (including Ben Stevenson’s Dracula [1997], The Snow Maiden [1998]; and Cleopatra [2000]; Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan [2002]; and Stanton Welch’s Tales of Texas [2004] and Marie [2009]).  These pieces have gone on to be performed across the country and around the world.

Moving into Wortham Theater Center also allowed Houston Ballet to greatly expand the number of performances of The Nutcracker that it gave each season, rising from 11 in 1986 to 29 in 1987 to 35 in 2012. The unveiling of Houston Ballet’s magical new production of The Nutcracker in 1987 launched a Texas holiday tradition that continues today. The Nutcracker also plays a key role in Houston Ballet’s financial picture, generating over $3.7 million in revenues (around 19 % of the organization’s annual budget) in 2011.

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