Discussing Ekman’s CACTI with Stager Spenser Theberge

We are nearing the end of our 2015/16 season following a refreshing Winter Mixed Repertory Program in March and wonderful company performances at the Miller Outdoor Theatre and Cynthia Woodlands Mitchell Pavilion earlier this month! Now we welcome our Spring Mixed Repertory Program running May 26 to June 5 at the Wortham Theater. We are delighted to showcase George Balanchine’s iconic Serenade, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria, and introduce Alexander Ekman’s Cacti to Houston. For this blog post we’ll be talking one-on-one with Cacti‘s stager and freelance dancer-choreographer Spenser Theberge. Get ready to laugh and smile with us as we discuss the triumphs of staging this captivating ballet!

By Jessica Maria MacFarlane

Watch previews of Houston Ballet’s 2016 Spring Mixed Repertory Program below:

Alexander Ekman’s Cacti is a rarity in the ballet world. Few classical ballets balance humor and beauty in ballet effectively, and even fewer major contemporary ballets bring a heavy dose of laughter alongside 21st century virtuosity. But if Serenade is essentially Balanchine’s love letter to technique and Gloria is Sir MacMillan’s elegy to WWI, then Cacti is definitely Ekman’s deconstruction of the very word “contemporary.”

“What does it mean?” It’s a simple but immense question which many audience members have often asked themselves following performances choreographed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ballet was initially created as a form of refined entertainment and social dance–so, full-length Romantic and Classical ballets like Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty follow specific narratives with distinct characters–but moving into the 20th and 21st centuries ballet, in general, absorbed many modern and contemporary art concepts, eventually creating what is widely regarded today as “contemporary ballet.”

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Artists of Houston Ballet. Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

Our Spring Mixed Repertory Program follows a fairly recent historic pathway through dance leading up to Cacti‘s contemporary 21st century roots: The first conception of Serenade was in 1934, Gloria was created for the Royal Ballet in 1980, and Cacti premiered with Nederlands Dans Theater 2 in 2010. In terms of movement, Ekman’s Cacti represents one of many contemporary dance creations that are currently circulating across various countries. From on-stage laughter to body percussions to pretentious spoken text, Cacti offers a wide-range of  entertainment but with a certain 21st century grit attached.

Watch a preview of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti below:


Spenser Theberge with Artists of Houston Ballet. Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

This is Spenser Theberge’s first time staging Cacti, but it’s been a part of his life for many years. Off the top of his head, he mentioned he must have performed Cacti well over 100 times with Nederlands Dans Theater 2, which is a company that usually gets to perform mixed rep pieces like Cacti over a long period of time. “I’ve had a 3-year gap since I last touched it, but it still takes up a large part of my muscle memory,” he says. Theberge holds a BFA in dance from the Juilliard School. He’s performed extensively with Netherlands Dance Theater 2 and Netherlands Dance Theater 1 and was a member of The Forsythe Company in Germany during William Forsythe’s last years as director. Theberge now travels across the world as a freelance dancer and choreographer.

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Artists of Houston Ballet. Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

Theberge treats this ballet with a high level of pride and values all of its oddities and silliness. Watching the dancers during this staging process, he noticed that both casts from nearly the entire company also felt the same way. “It can be difficult to embrace everything that Cacti has to offer,” he admits. The entire first group section, for instance, with audible gasps and shouts is one area that can be particularly challenging for more reserved dancers.

But like most contemporary ballets, Cacti allows individuality to expand beyond reservations and limitations. During the staging process of this piece ranking company members invested themselves in each other’s progression. “I’m moved by their strong ability to process it all and help one another along the way. They’re such an honest group of committed artists who value their time together in the studio just as much as performing on stage,” he says with a smile.

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Artists of Houston Ballet. Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

Referring back to his time away from this piece Theberge notes, “Having a good sense of body knowledge is an important take-away for all mixed reps. My personal dance mantra is to take each piece with me into the future and respect my time with it.”  Looking ahead, Houston Ballet’s 2016-17 season includes two mixed repertory programs–American Ingenuity and Legends and Prodigy–that will feature similar contemporary movement. Time is a precious thing for everyone involved in the process of staging a ballet. “Because there can be so many programs in a season, it can become a series of ‘check-lists’ in many ways,” says Theberge. “But it’s important that the dancers ask themselves, what is being worked on today.”

During this month alone the company must find a balance between six performances (three per cast) of CactiSerenade, and Gloria for this mixed repertory program, crafting Giselle for its June world premiere, and rehearsing Romeo and Juliet for the upcoming Australian tour. Additionally, this is Houston Ballet’s third mixed repertory program of the 2015-16 season. “They have an extraordinary ability to walk into each studio without distractions and prioritize their studio time,” Theberge remarks. “They really enjoyed their time with Cacti, I think, and respect its value. I hope the audience will also come to enjoy and respect it too.”

Tickets for the Spring Mixed Repertory Program are on sale now by phone or online at http://www.houstonballet.org/Ticketing-Schedule/Season-Calendar/Spring-Mixed-Rep/ with performances running until Sunday June 5.

Watch our video promo for George Balanchine’s Serenade below:

Watch our video promo for Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria below:

Join us next time on ‘En Pointe with Houston Ballet’ for posts about our last program of the 2015/16 season, Stanton Welch’s new staging of Giselle which premieres at the Wortham June 9-19! And later we’ll have a series of posts dedicated to our 2016 Summer Intensive in collaboration with our Academy.

Jessica Maria MacFarlane is the PR/Marketing Archival Intern for Houston Ballet. She’s an active member of the Society of Dance History Scholars and a freelance dance writer for Arts & Culture Texas.

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