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DANCING BALANCHINE AND KYLIAN: AN INTERVIEW WITH SOLOIST LAUREN STRONGIN

May 23, 2014

-by Stephanie Brown, Public Relations Intern

Houston Ballet is exploring the diverse artistic genius of George Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Jiří Kylián in its program Modern Masters, currently running now through June 1st. The imaginative and powerful choreography of these three masters can be described as immensely challenging, yet a pure joy and honor to perform.

Artists of Houston Ballet - The Four Temperaments

Photograph from The Four Temperaments, Choreography by George Balanchine, © The George Balanchine Trust. Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet (Lauren Strongin [right]). Photo by Amitava Sarkar

The dreams of Soloist Lauren Strongin are finally coming true; she will be dancing in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort. We spoke with Lauren to find out what she loves about these two choreographers, as well as the challenges and triumphs she has faced in her journey of preparing for Modern Masters.

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Soloist Lauren Strongin; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet:  Explain to us the art of dancing a George Balanchine piece. How does Balanchine stand out from other choreographers?

Lauren Strongin:  Balanchine was a revolutionary. His style permeates many contemporary choreographers work. Even within the Modern Masters program, his influence on Kylián and Forsythe is noticeable. His musicality and requirement for extreme precision always pushes me. There is always a sense of accomplishment after performing one of his works.

Houston Ballet:  Tell us about your solo in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. What are some challenges you have faced in dancing this piece?

Lauren StronginThe Four Temperaments is a ballet I remember seeing while in school in Stuttgart, Germany. I was in awe of the use of modern movements incorporated into a seamless non-narrative. I loved the way the body was used as a means of expression rather than relying on facial emotion or pantomime techniques to get his vision across. It’s a classic Balanchine that I am honored to perform not one, but two roles in. It’s a ballet I’ve always hoped to dance.

The Four Temp Artists of Houston

Photograph from The Four Temperaments, Choreography by George Balanchine, © The George Balanchine Trust. Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

It’s sexy in an understated way. There is a confidence that is built into the choreography. The challenge in dancing a Balanchine ballet is to let the movement and musicality drive the emotional intent. His works are physically very revealing and require pure use of technique and precision. His ballets always make me feel like I am improving on myself. This experience working with Judith Fugate, who has staged The Four Temperaments for Houston Ballet, has also been such a treasure, that I feel confident and excited to be a part of this ballet.

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Ballet: Petite Mort; Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet:  Jiří Kylián is another great choreographer honored in Modern Masters. Explain to us what you have learned from Kylián’s choreography and how his style differs from other ballets.

Lauren Strongin: Kylián to me is genius. His use of movement is so fluid and natural. I find his work to be very thoughtful and genuine. He is confident in what he is trying to say and therefore does not over decorate or add unnecessary movements to fill in his work. He is a true original, and I am always honored to dance in his ballets. It seems that his works have a living quality to them, as if they have a soul.

Houston Ballet:  You are performing a pas de deux in Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort. I understand this is a very sensual piece; how does it make you feel and what do you do to prepare for this role?

Lauren Strongin:  Petite Mort is a ballet I had always hoped to dance at some point in my career. I’m thrilled to have the chance, now, to be a part of it. It’s also an honor to be coached once more by Ros Anderson. She’s such an expert on Kylián’s work and always makes me feel very confident and secure in the movement.

It is a very sensual ballet and to me really explores individual personal relationships between couples. Each couple is expressing a different part of a partnership. It’s a ballet that makes the audience and dancers want to focus on every detail, so as not to miss a moment. It’s a true masterpiece.

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Houston Ballet continues its performances of Modern Masters through Sunday, June 1, 2014 at 2:00 pm at Wortham Theater Center.  For tickets and more information, visit:  https://www.houstonballet.org/Ticketing_Schedule/Season_Calendar/Modern_Masters/

 

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Dancing the Black Swan

May 9, 2014

-by Jennifer Sommers, Houston Ballet Outreach Coordinator and Curriculum Specialist

Houston Ballet's Swan Lake

Mireille Hassenboehler and Andrew Murphy, artists of Houston Ballet; Swan Lake; Amitava Sarkar

 

Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan traces the psychological breakdown of a ballerina preparing to dance the leading role in Swan Lake in a fictional New York ballet company. When it premiered on the big screen, it received fantastic reviews such as these:

“To induce a state of dread and mesmerize with beauty is a rare, paradoxical achievement.”  –USA Today

“Wild and wooly, the movie is a breathtaking head trip that hails from a long tradition of backstage melodramas…” –Philadelphia Inquirer

 And reviews that panned it like these:

 “For all its dazzling allure, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a feverishly psycho thriller set in the hermetic world of classical ballet, proves a meaningless exercise in Grand Guignol exhibitionism.” –NPR

 “Not just any kind of trash, it’s high-art trash, a kind of “When Tutu Goes Psycho” that so prizes hysteria over sanity that it’s worth your life to tell when its characters are hallucinating and when they’re not. –The Los Angeles Times

But what do dancers who have prepared for and danced Odette/Odile in Swan Lake think of the movie? That’s what we will find out when Houston Ballet concludes its 2013-14 Dance Talks series on May 27, 2014 at 7:00 pm with a special screening of Black Swan at Sundance Cinemas, followed by a panel of current and former Houston Ballet principal dancers. The dancers will share their thoughts about the film’s portrayal of the lead dancer, life in world-class ballet company, and what it’s like to prepare for and dance the lead role Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

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Connor Walsh and Sara Webb in Swan Lake; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Former principal dancer Dawn Scannell, who danced her first Swan Lake for Houston Ballet on opening night in 1996 with Carlos Acosta, will moderate the panel. She will be joined by a group of favorite Houston dancers including: former principal dancer Lauren Anderson, who first danced Odette/Odile in 1996 with Sean Kelly; Barbara Bears, who first danced the lead in Swan Lake with Li Cunxin in 1991 while she was still a corps de ballet member; Mireille Hassenboehler, who danced the Stevenson version of Swan Lake with Carlos Acosta and performed with Andrew Murphy on opening night for the premiere of Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake; Sara Webb, who has danced both the Stevenson and Welch version and is preparing to perform Odette/Odile again in June; and Karina Gonzalez, who Houston will see in Swan Lake for the very first time in June.

Join us on Tuesday, May 27th, at 7:00 PM, at Sundance Cinemas, 510 Texas Avenue, for a fun and insightful night of ballet and film!

 For more information about our Dance Talks visit: http://www.houstonballet.org/Education_Outreach/Dance_Talks/

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Barbara Bears and Connor Walsh in Swan Lake; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Seating for the free screening of Black Swan is first-come, first-served, and tickets may not be obtained in advance.  Please note that Black Swan is a psychological horror film, and is not suitable for younger or more sensitive audiences.

Image from Black Swan Film

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Houston Ballet Academy Students Take Voyage Of Discovery And Inspiration In Germany At The Fourth Dance Education Biennale 2014 Dresden

March 21, 2014

–by Shelly Power, Houston Ballet Academy Director

From February 15 – 23, 2014, a group representing Houston Ballet Academy enjoyed a full week in Dresden, Germany, participating in workshops, classes, performances and a two-day symposium on the creative process. Being one of three international schools and the only school from America, we were privileged and honored to be a part of the Biennale.

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Houston Ballet Academy Dancers,  Jack Thomas and Charlotte Larzelere

As I reflect back on our trip to Germany it reminds me of the importance of Houston Ballet’s international relationships with the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition in Switzerland, with Canada’s National Ballet School, and with ballet schools in Japan. They not only help us continue the evolution of dance in the broad perspective; they also impact us personally.

Jason Beechey, Director of the Palucca Schule in Dresden, hosted the week, which inspired our students, challenged our thinking and allowed us to experience performances in the beautiful Semperoper Opera House as well as the Hellerau European Center for the Arts.

Our contingent included Houston Ballet II Ballet Master Claudio Munoz,  Houston Ballet II dancers James Potter and Jack Thomas, and level 8 students Charlotte Larzelere and Madison Young. Claudio arrived with our students on Saturday, February 15, and classes began early Sunday morning. The teaching staff was fantastic and featured  free-lance teachers Christine  Anthony, Artistic Director  Frederic Flamand, Choreographer and Ballet Director Marguerite Donlon, and Semperoper Ballet’s Principal Ballet Mater Gamal Goud — to name a few. Check out the entire roster at http://www.biennale-tanzausbildung.de/en/participants/teachers/.

The Student Workshops

Students rotated throughout the week, allowing for a different daily class experience. The workshop met daily, and students worked with the same group and leader all week, giving them time to get comfortable with the process. The end results of the workshop were informally demonstrated at the Hellerau European Center for the Arts, which is a creative space plunked right down in the middle of a residential area.  It has an important history for the Dresden community as well as for the creativity the space itself is designed to bring about.

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Houston Ballet Academy Dancer, Charlotte Larzelere

I witnessed each group as they maneuvered themselves through the process each leader created for them. Charlotte seemed to expand her long arms and legs and move more freely.  James absorbed a sense of confidence. Although already intense in his thought process, he seemed to deepen his conviction to the movement. Jack was inspired by the process in that he had never experienced improvisation in this way and gave of himself fully. Madison was a trouper as she observed the process because her injured toe prevented her from participating. However, through her observation, I believe she witnessed much of what I observed:  individual personal growth in each student.

Houston Ballet Academy - James Potter

Houston Ballet Academy Dancer, James Potter

In an interview later, James expressed how he was able to feel more assured overall because the process helped him to develop his own movement and emotion, which he plans to incorporate in his investment in future roles as a dancer. It is most difficult to put yourself out there in this manner — rather than copying what you believe a role should be.  You give of yourself to the role, and you become the role as one.

Performance Time!

Mr. Beechey invited us to bring two pieces of student choreography to Dresden. James Potter had just finished a new piece for his evaluations in the fall, and we invited him to bring a second piece he had done last summer for the choreographic workshop. Both pieces were performed in the Semperoper House on Tuesday night, February 23. Other schools joined him with an array of works that represented work from each school.

Before both pieces, we showed a video in which James and his dancers shared their journey in creating the work which had been filmed and edited by David Rivera of Houston Ballet. The audience loved both pieces as well as the film on the creative process.

During the week, we were fortunate to see The Forsythe Company perform Sider. Watching this improvisational piece develop on the spot was incredible. I found out later that the dancers heard commands through ear pieces that directed them when to stop and start and move to another section as well as hearing Shakespearean dialogue which crafted much of the story. I heard from audience members who had attended again the second night that the piece looked totally different from the first night. Now German audiences have experienced this type of performance many times before. However many of us saw this process for the first time.

The week ended for me with a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Semperoper House danced by the Dresden Ballet company. The choreography and contemporary concept by Stijn Celis were unique. I am not sure balletomanes would enjoy it. But I was most impressed with the ballet dancer’s ability to tell the story in a language so different from classical ballet. Celis was brave in his choices, such as having Juliet (Julia Weiss) in tennis shoes, a white button down shirt and shorts. She danced beautifully. Elena Vostrotina as Lady Capulet is over 6 feet tall in her stilettos heels, and carried much of the show simply with her powerful walks across stage.  Jiří Bubeníček was incredible as Romeo.

The Symposium

Over two days, we discussed the creative process in several different scenarios during the symposium. We focused on how creativity affects the artist, an institution, the funding, an audience, the profession and education as a whole.

Houston Ballet Center for Dance

Houston Ballet Center for Dance; Photo by Nic Lehoux

I participated as a panelist in a forum in which we discussed how creative our own institutions were. Given that we offer several different venues at Houston Ballet that actually push the creative engine, I felt proud of our investment of time and energies. The Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab (the 175-seat black box theater at Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance) came to mind.  This space gives us the opportunity to create new works, present performances, and educate through Dance Talks and Studio Series. Also, through collaborations such as Pink at the Brown, we give artists the opportunity to give of their talents to raise awareness and resources, all in the name of breast cancer awareness and using the arts to heal.

Other topics such as the conflict between education and the profession were discussed, which highlighted the growth the US has made in college dance programs across the country, juxtaposed with German schools which offer B.A. and M.A.’s by the hundreds. We considered the usefulness of such degrees, and how Europe and America differ in hiring with such degrees.

The key note speech on Creativity and Promoting Creativity was presented by Professor Dr. Rainer Holm-Hadulla who is a specialist in psychiatry and has written a book on this topic. He walked us through the analysis of creative processes, revealing the implications for the promotion of ordinary and extraordinary creativity. That said, it is more about an individual’s interest in an art form than it is on DNA. Those who pursue what they love often end up succeeding in some manner. Those who are extraordinary might be individuals who take something out of chaos and form structure from it. Often those in our culture who have been extraordinarily creative have built an inner structure within themselves that may have been missing, thus producing an external art form such as painting, music or dance. I won’t go any further as I am afraid Dr. Hadulla might be horrified by my interpretation. But I found his thought process intriguing.

Houston Ballet Academy Dancers in Germany

Houston Ballet II dancers James Potter and Jack Thomas, and level 8 students Charlotte Larzelere and Madison Young

Wrap Up

The symposium wrapped up the week with the articulate and bright spirited Deborah Bull, Mistress of Ceremonies, capturing the inspiration and discovery that both students and directors experienced. Meeting with my colleagues from across the globe was also important as we were able to network and brain storm on how we might bring a new creative energy back home.

 

Watch this video in which Academy student and choreographer James Potter discusses his creative process for creating a new work for Houston Ballet Academy.

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Acclaimed Actor Steps into New Role in “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”

March 13, 2014

Over the last month, Houston Ballet has been pleased to welcome the beloved Texas actor Jaston Williams as a guest artist, performing the role of the narrator in Stanton Welch’s new production of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which continues in performance at Wortham Theater Center through Sunday, March 16 at 2:00 pm.

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Ballet: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Since 1982, Mr. Williams has served as co-author and co-star of the Tuna trilogy (including Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas), chronicling the citizens of the small fictional town of Tuna, Texas on and off Broadway, at The Kennedy Center, the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the Spoleto Festival USA and on tours across America. He won the LA Dramalogue  and the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Awards for his performances in both Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas. A native of Austin, Mr. Williams toured for several years in Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, and received a nomination for best actor for Washington DC’s prestigious Helen Hayes Awards.

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Jaston Williams; Photo by Brenda Ladd

In this week’s blog, he spoke about his surprise at being asked to collaborate with Houston Ballet, his admiration for the work ethic of the dancers, and the solicitude of music director Ermanno Florio in working with him during the rehearsal process.

Houston Ballet: When you were first approached about appearing as the Narrator in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, what was your initial response?

Jaston Williams: I first met members of the Houston Ballet last year when they and I were being honored with the Texas Medal of the Arts Awards. I must say then when I got the call I feared they might have dialed the wrong number! But of course I’m honored to be a part of this production.

Houston Ballet: You’ve worked with actors and theatrical companies across the nation. What was it like to collaborate with dancers and orchestra musicians?

Jaston Williams: Sadly I can’t allow myself to watch the dancers in the performance because I will get so mesmerized that I’ll forget what I’m supposed to be doing. As for the orchestra the conductor has taken great care of me and has been beyond patient and helpful.

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Ballet: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet: What has been the most challenging part for you about appearing as the narrator in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Jaston Williams: My greatest challenge has been trying not to show my age among these beautiful young people. I fear I look like everyone’s grandfather when I’m up there on stage.

Houston Ballet: What has been the most rewarding part of the experience?

Jaston Williams: I find it humbling to observe the work ethic of dancers. We don’t work that hard in the world of theatre.

Houston Ballet: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us about your experience working with Stanton Welch, collaborating with Houston Ballet and its orchestra?

Jaston Williams: It has been a distinct pleasure to observe Stanton in all his brilliance and to be allowed to have this unique performance opportunity. I will recall it fondly.

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Houston Ballet continues its performances of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra through Sunday, March 16 at 2:00 pm. For more information and to purchase tickets:  https://www.houstonballet.org/Ticketing_Schedule/Season_Calendar/Young_Persons_Guide/

Or call Houston Ballet’s Box Office at 713 227 2787 Monday – Friday 9 am – 5pm.

Watch a clip of Stanton Welch’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with narration by Jaston Williams.

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Holly Hynes Creates Tuxedos “Worthy of the Red Carpet” in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

March 5, 2014

From March 6 – 16, Houston Ballet will unveil the world premiere of Stanton Welch’s new version of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, set to the beloved score by Benjamin Britten and featuring costumes designed by Holly Hynes. 

Costume sketch by Holly Hynes

Costume sketch for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Holly Hynes

Ms. Hynes has enjoyed a long, distinguished career as a costume designer, with commissions from the Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet, among many others.  She has collaborated with Stanton Welch on eleven productions, including The Core, his homage to New York City in the 1940s, and Brigade, his delightful classical showpiece created in 2006.

Holly Hynes - Headshot

Holly Hynes; Photo by Paul Kolnik

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Houston Ballet:Your costumes for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra seem inspired by tuxedos and have an air of 1930s Hollywood glamour. Can you talk about your concept for the costume design of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra? 

Holly Hynes: Stanton and I had been working on this idea for months. Batting around several different looks, we finally settled on an “orchestra uniform” for all, men and women, I wanted to come up with a glamorous streamline look for the main body of the ballet. Adjustments had to be made to the tailcoats so the dancers could move. But for the real meat of the choreography, I wanted something worthy of the red carpet: something tailored but showing their amazing bodies.

Houston Ballet: You’ve worked with Stanton Welch on several projects. Can you describe your collaborative process, and how it worked for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra?

Holly Hynes: This is my eleventh ballet with Stanton. He’s created some wonderful ballets for me to design all over the United States but the experience has been the best in his own backyard at the Houston Ballet. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is very special to me because I worked with Jerome Robbins and have supervised the recreation of Irene Sharaff’s designs for his Fanfare for the New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet which is set to the same music. To hear this piece played by the masterful Houston Ballet orchestra is a treat. But to watch the Houston Ballet dancers interpret Stanton’s vision in my clothes is a blessing.

Because I am based on the East Coast, our first meeting was in Central Park in New York City over coffee on a beautiful sunny day. I love that our collaborations are based on hard work but we always manage to get laughter and fun in there too. My first drawings were on little scraps of hotel note paper. Stanton is so trusting and we have worked well together for so long that even those little scratches could turn into full costume renderings. Of course living in two different cities, the internet has made our process much easier.

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Costume sketch for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Holly Hynes

Houston Ballet: Can you talk about your collaboration with Houston Ballet’s costume shop in constructing the costumes for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra? When did you first provide them with costume sketches? How did you interact with them? 

Holly Hynes: Houston Ballet has a wonderful brand new costume shop in the Center for Dance. The workroom is filled with old and new friends. Wardrobe Manager Laura Lynch, who runs the department, is the first person after Stanton to receive the sketches. This is my twelfth build with Laura and we often finish each other’s’ sentences.

Our first conversation centered around budgets. We decided it would be more cost efficient to try and purchase the tailcoats but to make the pants and shirts and cummerbunds. That said, this started us on a long journey of trying to find black material and off the rack coats that would appear to be the same color on stage. The fabric needed to stretch as well, and extra jacket material had to be bought so we could add gussets under everyone’s arms.

Laura found some interesting fabrics and samples were made. But when I came in for my first trip, I didn’t love any of them. Next we went back to High Fashion Fabrics where I found a wonderful stretch fabric for all the pants. We held our breath while the store tried to find the right amount of yardage for us.

Costume sketch 3

A month passed and I flew in from New York a second time, and we fit the first cast which is over 30 dancers. Costume Shop Supervisor Sara Seavey, who is in charge of the work room, was amazing at keeping the fittings on time and everything tagged and organized. Not one dancer missed a fitting, something I wish other companies could boast about. Not sure how the tailors and drapers keep all parts together since from a distance it is a sea of black and white sameness. Follow up fittings and second casts were seen without me, but by then everyone owned the ballet.

I flew in last Thursday for the technical rehearsal and now we are waiting to begin the dress rehearsals leading up to the opening.

Houston Ballet: What was the first project on which you collaborated with Stanton Welch as costume designer? Did you realize at the time that it would lead to such a long and fruitful collaboration?

Holly Hynes: When I was Director of Costumes for the New York City Ballet I also had an active career designing both for the company and for outside ballet companies. One group, called the Chamber Dance Project, had invited a young choreographer from Australia to create a new piece for them. I was already working with them on another piece so they asked me to design for Stanton as well.

It is always scary to be suggested for a collaboration when you don’t know the other partner. Stanton couldn’t have been nicer and we immediately spoke the same language. He had grown up behind the scenes at The Australian Ballet with his performing parents and spent many an hour running around the costume shop. He has a great eye, and we have a very similar love of color.

Over the years he has really helped me find my voice as an artist. I owe him a lot as a friend and as a collaborator. The name of that first ballet was Kisses…I think that says it all.

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Houston Ballet will perform The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra March 6 – 16 at Wortham Theater Center.  Also featured on the program are Stanton Welch’s ballets Maninyas and the company premiere of Of Blessed Memory.  Tickets start at $19, and may be purchased at www.houstonballet.org

 For more information on this program, visit:  http://www.houstonballet.org/Ticketing_Schedule/Season_Calendar/Young_Persons_Guide/

To watch a video preview of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra:

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Behind the Scenes of Aladdin: Christopher Gray Flies High as the Djinn of the Lamp

February 28, 2014

Christopher Gray and Artists of Houston Ballet

Christopher Gray as the Djinn (Genie) with artists of Houston Ballet; Aladdin; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

-by Stephanie Brown, Public Relations Intern

David Bintley’s Aladdin, which continues in performance through Sunday, March 2, has a way of enchanting the audience with beautiful, unique props and exquisite, colorful costumes. I had the honor of attending Aladdin on opening night, and I swear I was under some mystifying spell; each intermission was a startling call back to reality. I didn’t want it to end! What was even more exciting was the chance I had to go backstage at Wortham Theater Center and see the props up close and personal. Below are some photos for your viewing pleasure!

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Behind the scenes shots by Stephanie Brown

One of my favorite characters in Aladdin was the Djinn of the lamp (the Genie), and demi soloist Christopher Gray danced his heart out. I was intrigued by his experience in creating his own version of the the Djinn of the lamp (the Genie), so we asked a few questions about the role.

Watch video of Christopher Gray as the Djinn in Aladdin.

Houston Ballet: Tell us about dancing as the Djinn of the lamp (the Genie). What are the most challenging aspects? What are the most exciting?

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Christopher Gray; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Christopher Gray: Hands down, one of the most challenging things is that some of the magical reveals were hidden in set pieces for long periods of time before some pretty difficult dancing.  So it’s the opposite of what you would normally do, which is to stay moving, keep yourself loose and then go out and dance. Being crouched down in a small space before having to dance is pretty difficult.

For the most exciting thing, this is my third time flying in ballet, and I always love doing that. The audience always really appreciates it. On opening night during the first scene with the levitation, everybody applauded. It was great! So that’s always exciting for me. It’s a challenge as well because you’re at the mercy of the wire when you’re up there. There’s not too much you can do to keep yourself from spinning or swinging, so it’s learning how to do those small adjustments without putting yourself in a counter rotation.

Houston Ballet:  Explain your wardrobe. How do you feel about being painted completely blue?

Christopher Gray:  Fortunately, it’s not completely blue. I don’t have to paint my legs. This in terms of ballet costumes is not so difficult to dance in, which I always like. Sometimes we have pounds and pounds of clothing and wigs we have to deal with, so this is relatively simple. [I wear] just a small vest and baggy pants

Aladdin César MoralesPrincess Badr al-Budur Nao SakumaThe Mahgrib Iain MackayThe Djinn of the Lamp Tzu-Chao ChouAladdin’s Mother Marion TaitThe Sultan, the Princess’s father Jonathan PaynAladdin’s Friends James Barton, Mathias Dingman

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet; Aladdin; Photo by Bill Cooper

Any time you don’t feel constricted by a costume, which I don’t because there are even shirtless scenes for me, it’s a lot easier to deal with. I prefer pants over tights any day of the week! In terms of wigs, Amanda, our wig and makeup person, has done a great job of making a wig that fits really flush to our heads. We just have a little bit of hair, like a top knot pony tail, which I don’t feel impedes my ability to turn and it doesn’t knock me off center, which is often a problem with costumes.

Being painted blue is hard. I’m there around 6:15 for a 7:30 start time.  And that includes not even being on stage until a good 40 minutes into the first act. Overall, I face about an hour and a half worth of body makeup, face makeup, and wigs. It’s difficult and, once again, the opposite of how you would want to get ready for a show…you know, standing there half naked for an hour and a half. I do throw warm-up clothes back on top, but you don’t want to sweat the makeup off. It’s a fine line you have to deal with. I’m getting pretty used to being painted, though. I think this is my third or fourth color!

Houston Ballet:  What do you do to get in character for the the Djinn of the lamp (the Genie)?

Christopher Gray:  As the body makeup and especially face makeup and wig come along, I feel like that’s part of my transformation. We have these wicked eyebrows and drag queen style makeup.  So it’s hard not to look at yourself with a little bit of humor when you see the character staring back at you.

If anything, the one thing that I have been doing is going over the mime section to try to create an aura of power, confidence, mystery, and a little bit of humor as well. Trying to work the fake eyebrows has been fun. As the shows progress, you find more time and space for that on stage and then the character grows from there.

Artists of Houston Ballet

Artists of Houston Ballet; Aladdin; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet:  What do you like about the props and costumes for Aladdin?

Christopher Gray:  One of my favorites is probably the most simple: the lamp that lights up. I think it’s very effective on stage. Those few times Aladdin lifts it up and then there’s a big crescendo in the music when it turns on and starts glowing…I think that’s fantastic! Also, the magic carpet is done really well.

I wish I could see the show from the front, but unfortunately that’s not in the cards for me. The lion dance in the second act is a big crowd favorite, and I also dance the head portion of the lion. It’s a lot of fun to do that. It does pose a problem because it’s difficult to hear the music, though. When you start shaking the head all you hear is rattling!

You can see Chris Gray dance the the Djinn of the lamp (the Genie) in Aladdin on Friday, February 28 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, March 1 at 7:30 pm.

Houston Ballet continues its performances of Aladdin through Sunday, March 2 at 2:00 pm at Wortham Theater Center.  For tickets and more information, visit:  https://www.houstonballet.org/Ticketing_Schedule/Season_Calendar/Aladdin/

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Making Musical Magic in Aladdin

February 18, 2014

Aladdin César Morales Princess Badr al-Budur Nao Sakuma The Mahgrib Iain Mackay The Djinn of the Lamp Tzu-Chao Chou Aladdin’s Mother Marion Tait The Sultan, the Princess’s father Jonathan Payn Aladdin’s Friends James Barton, Mathias Dingman
Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet; Aladdin; Bill Cooper

Composer Carl Davis, who is highly acclaimed in the fields of film and musicals, has written numerous ballet, TV and film scores. (His score for The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981  won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.)  Mr. Davis worked with English choreographer David Bintley to create the score for Mr. Bintley’s three-act magical ballet Aladdin. Houston Ballet will present the American premiere of Aladdin February 20-March 2, 2014 at Wortham Theater Center. In this blog entry, Mr. Davis talks about the evolution of his score for Aladdin, the strict demands of writing scores for films, and his genial collaboration with Mr. Bintley.


1. How has the score for
Aladdin evolved? 

Aladdin was composed for an earlier production, that of the Scottish Ballet in 2000 as a possible answer to finding an alternative to The Nutcracker for its Christmas seasons. In the case of that production the answer was “no” as the company ceased to exist in its large scale form by the following year. The score for Aladdin, until its new production by David Bintley for the National Ballet of Japan in 2008, seemed to be consigned to oblivion.

Carl Davis Headshot Colour

Music Composer Carl Davis

I decided to rescue it by making a recording of the score which coincided with my composition of a new score for David Bintley’s Cyrano ballet in 2005. He responded very positively to the music and, given the nature of the subject, thought it would be suitable when he took up directorship of the National Ballet of Japan. He asked me to re-score certain sections, particularly Aladdin’s flight from the bath house and his subsequent capture and trial. We also had a change of context for the Emerald Variation in Act I.  In the 2000 version I wryly interpreted the number as meaning green with envy. The revised music was nearer to ‘The Jungle Book’.

2. Can you describe the give and take of the collaborative process between choreographer and composer when creating a new narrative ballet?

Every experience is different. David and I laughed and chatted a lot, a real party experience. The real difference in this collaboration was that, unlike composing the Cyrano ballet where I started from David’s scenario, in Aladdin David bought into an already composed score. I am amazed by how much he kept.

But even the new sections had an evolved process. First I had to understand why we were making the changes, and it was generally that he suggested a different attitude towards that particular moment. And, there were some changes in the order of some of the numbers.

 

Aladdin César Morales Princess Badr al-Budur Nao Sakuma The Mahgrib Iain Mackay The Djinn of the Lamp Tzu-Chao Chou Aladdin’s Mother Marion Tait The Sultan, the Princess’s father Jonathan Payn Aladdin’s Friends James Barton, Mathias Dingman

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet; Aladdin; Bill Cooper

3. You have created orchestra works, scores for films and television, and scores for ballet. How is composing a score for ballet unique?

With film music you are given a strictly controlled time framework which you then fill with music, rather like painting by numbers. But generally other than contemporary dance where the movement may not be related to the music at all, in ballet the music has to be composed first and all inspiration for the movement is derived from it.

4. Anything else that you feel is significant about your artistic experience creating the score for Aladdin.

Aladdin was conceived as popular family entertainment based on a story from the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ and familiar to the public through reading, theatre (Aladdin is Great Britain’s most favourite pantomime –  an arcane mixture of fairy tale, pop songs, and topical gags). I felt free to be as eclectic musically as I wished. After all my subject was composed in medieval Persia, set in China, with an excursion via flying carpet to Morocco. And the magic lamp is pure sci-fi. That gave me many options.

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From February 20-March 2, 2014, Houston Ballet presents the North American Premiere of David Bintley’s Aladdin, the first work by the celebrated English choreographer to enter Houston Ballet’s repertoire. A run-in with palace guards leads young Aladdin into a whirlwind of adventure and romance, involving unbelievable riches, love at first sight, treachery, and of course a magic lamp containing a powerful genie. Tickets start at $19, and may be purchased at www.houstonballet.org or by calling Houston Ballet box office at 713 227 2787, or 1800 828 2787.

Watch a preview of Aladdin here—

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Academy Students Leap On To World Stage At Prix De Lausanne Competition In Switzerland

January 30, 2014

Houston Ballet Academy students Tyler Donatelli, who is 17 and from Huntington Beach, California, and Michael Ryan, who is 17 and a native of Plano, Texas, have been accepted into the  prestigious international ballet competition Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland January 26 – February 1.

Tyler Donatelli & Michael Ryan - Amitava Sarkar Houston Ballet

Dancers: Michael Ryan and Tyler Donatelli; Photo by Cameron Durham

They are in Switzerland this week for an once-in-a-lifetime experience: taking classes, being coached by international experts, and networking with other gifted young students from across the world.  The public can follow their daily progress and watch the final round of the competition on Saturday morning, February 1, via live streaming at the Prix de Lausanne’s web site, www.prixdelausanne.org

Since 2009, five HoustonBalletAcademy students have won awards at the Prix de Lausanne, with one student, Emanuel Amuchastegui, taking the top prize, and the “Audience Favorite” Award in 2010.  Other Houston Ballet dancers who have won awards at Prix de Lausanne include Joel Woellner, Harper Watters, and Aaron Sharatt.

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Joel Woellner at Prix 2013; courtesy of Prix de Lausanne

Behind each of these five winners and Tyler and Michael are a superb group of Houston Ballet Academy instructors who spend months preparing, coaching, teaching and nurturing the young dancers to ready them for the rigors of competition – and in the upper levels of the Academy’s professional training program.

Claudio Munoz is ballet master of Houston Ballet II, and has played a major role in producing the stellar crop of gifted young male dancers in the Academy over the last decade.  He enjoyed a distinguished career as a principal dancer who performed in Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and New York.  He then went on to serve as an instructor for the Ballet Nacional de Chile, Ballet de Santiago, and Ballet Nacional de Peru.  He joined the staff of Houston Ballet Academy in 1999.  With his charismatic manner, his exacting standards, and his humorous banter in the studio, he has won the affection and dedication of his male students.

Houston Ballet Academy - Claudio Munoz

Claudio Munoz teaching Houston Ballet Academy students; Photo by Cameron Durham

“Claudio understands competitions and balances the pace of the students coaching. He knows when to push and when to step back and allow the student room to find his way,” comments Academy Director Shelly Power.  “Claudio has a wealth of experience that makes his intuitive approach to coaching unique and nurturing.”

Priscilla Nathan Murphy is principal of Houston Ballet’s Lower School, and typically focuses her attention on the Academy’s youngest students.  But recently she has taken a significant role in helping to prepare Tyler and Michael for this year’s Prix de Lausanne.  Priscilla has served on the Academy faculty since 1985, having taught creative movement, ballet and modern dance in the pre-professional and professional divisions of the Academy. As a dancer, she has performed in Singapore and the United States with several companies.  She has also choreographed extensively in the United States.

Level 2_Priscilla Nathan-Murphy_Photo Bruce Bennett

Priscilla Nathan Murphy

“Priscilla is an organic mover,” observed Ms. Power. “Although she might not have worked with the contemporary choreographers whose works the students are required to perform at the Prix, she understands the genesis of the movement. She prepares our students who are competing from a technical level, making them open and responsive to the coaching that they will receive at the Prix. We depend on this foundation because the students cannot go to Prix worried about how to do a contraction. Our students need to focus on how the flow of the movement makes them unique, and they need to be sensitive to the feedback from coaches at the Prix that they are expected to embrace.”

SabrinaLenzi Houston Ballet Academy

Sabrina Lenzi and students of Houston Ballet Academy

A native of Rome, Sabrina Lenzi brings a wealth of international experience to her role as ballet mistress of Houston Ballet II from having danced as a principal at two very prestigious European companies, the Stuttgart Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet in the United Kingdom. “Sabrina’s a great coach; she’s very intuitive. She understands the great classical roles because she’s performed them,” observes Ms. Power, “Because Sabrina has been trained in Pilates, she comprehends the body from many different perspectives — from injury prevention to strengthening. Sabrina understands the many different phases of developing a career in dance: from training to become a professional dancer. And she’s very good at helping her students make that transition.  She’s also a mom who has a daughter in the Academy, and being a mother gives her a special understanding of the process.”

A native of Sidney Australia, instructor Andrew Murphy enjoyed a distinguished career as a leading soloist with The Australian Ballet and as a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Houston Ballet. “Andrew is an excellent male role model. He’s very good at helping the male students (some of whom may have been in a school with a majority of girls) to develop an athletic approach with strong attack when they come to Houston Ballet Academy,” commented Ms. Power. “Being very well travelled as a dancer, he brings many experiences from a lifetime of dance in Australia, the United Kingdom, and in America. He started studying ballet very early, and joined a professional company at age 16, which is quite young. Having danced all of the principal roles with companies across the world, he brings a wealth of experience to his coaching.  Andrew is an excellent turner, and he has a superb understanding of the nuances of male dancers executing turns.”

Houston Ballet Academy - Andrew Murphy

Andrew Murphy and students of Houston Ballet Academy; Photo by Nerio Photography

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All About “The Nutcracker” – Q&A with Corps de Ballet dancer Derek Dunn

December 19, 2013

-by Kassandra Tak, Marketing/Public Relations Intern

Houston Ballet First Year Corps de Ballet Dancer Derek Dunn, took some time to share his thoughts about dancing the roles of Fritz and the Gopak in The Nutcracker, running November 29 – December 29, 2013 at Wortham Theater Center. An interesting fact about Mr. Dunn is that he was awarded a Gold medal in the Senior Division at the 2012 Youth America Grand Prix.

Derek Dunn_Photo Amitava_2012

Dancer Headshot: Derek Dunn; Photo: Amitava Sarkar


Q. What was your first role in The Nutcracker? How did you feel? 

A. My first ever role in the Nutcracker was a party boy when I was only 6 years old. At that age, I was just excited to be onstage any chance I got. I always enjoy getting the opportunity to act onstage, and since the party scene is filled with lots of acting, this role was very enjoyable for me.

IMG_4831 Dunn

Dancer: Derek Dunn; Ballet: Clear; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Q. What roles were you cast in for the 2012 Nutcracker performances? How did you feel playing this character?

A. That year, I was given the opportunity to perform the role of Gopak. Although the solo is short, it’s filled with big jumps and turns, and is full of excitement. I had to be very energetic and involved with the audience. The music is fast, which really helped me get my adrenaline flowing. That being my first year in the company, I felt very privileged to perform this role, and I had a lot of fun with it.

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Derek Dunn in rehearsals at Houston Ballet Center for Dance; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Q. What role(s) are you playing for this 2013 Nutcracker season? 

A. Throughout our run of The Nutcracker, I get to play multiple different roles, including Fritz, Soldier Doll, Chinese, Mirliton, Spanish, and Gopak.

Q. Which role are you looking forward to playing? And why?

A. I am most looking forward to dancing the role of Fritz. When I was younger, I was given the opportunity to dance that role, so returning to perform Fritz again at an older age is something that I find very enjoyable. I get to bring out my youthful side, through acting and dancing around the stage. I always find theatrical characters to be a lot of fun because it forces you to act in ways that you may not act like in real life.

IMG_2450 Iijima, Gray, Artists of HB

Dancers: Nozomi Iijima, Christopher Gray and Artists of Houston Ballet; Ballet: The Nutcracker (Act One) Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Q. Which act in The Nutcracker is your favorite? And why?

A. Although I love the whole ballet, I really enjoy the first act of The Nutcracker. In the first act, you get a sense of the whole story. Clara is given a magical Nutcracker that enters her dreams and takes her to extraordinary places. The second act is amazing for the amount of diverse dancing it shows, but I really enjoy the set up of the story-line in the first act. In a way, the second act is like a conclusion to the story, but the first act has many different scenes that take you on a journey with Clara.

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Houston Ballet performs Ben Stevenson’s staging of The Nutcracker, featuring spectacular scenery and costumes by Desmond Heeley, November 29 – December 29 at Wortham Theater Center.  For tickets and more information, visit http://www.houstonballet.org/TheNutcracker/ or call 713 227 2787 Monday – Friday 9 am – 6 pm.

Watch a video preview of The Nutcracker:  

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All About “The Nutcracker” – Q&A with Soloist Nao Kusuzaki

December 9, 2013

–by  Kassandra Tak, Marketing/Public Relations Intern

With the holidays around the corner, Houston Ballet’s Soloist, Nao Kusuzaki, took some time to share her thoughts about The Nutcracker, running November 29 – December 29 at Wortham Theater Center. Ms. Kusuzaki joined Houston Ballet in 2004 and she has danced a variety of roles since becoming a Soloist in 2008.

Copy of Kusuzaki, Nao- PamFrancis_edit

Nao Kusuzaki; Photo by Pam Francis

Q. What was your first role in The Nutcracker? How did you feel?

A.  My first Nutcracker roles, with Boston Ballet, included Marzipan, Waltz of Flowers, Snowflakes, and party scene parent. I remember looking forward to this time of the season. I grew up being involved in this production as a student, and dreamed of one day dancing next to dancers I looked up to in the company. In the early years with the company, I performed in nearly 50 shows, which I did not mind.

Nao Kusuzaki Ian Casady_JSC7522 Jackie Rodriguez

Nao Kusuzaki as Clara’s Mother and Artists of Houston Ballet; The Nutcracker; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Q. What roles were you cast in for the 2012 Nutcracker performances?

A. I danced the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen, Mirlitons, and Clara’s Mother.

Q. How did you feel playing Snow Queen?

A. The snow queen stands at the apex, commanding the transformation from the Battle Scene to the Snow Scene and taking everyone into her world. I enjoy portraying this confident, warm, regal woman. Although it is physically demanding, I imagine what the audience is experiencing in this moment, possibly for the first time, and it sets me free.

The Nutcracker Artists of Houston Ballet

Artists of Houston Ballet; The Nutcracker; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Q.  What role(s) are you playing for this 2013 Nutcracker season?

A. I will be dancing the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen, Arabian, Waltz of Flowers, Mirlitons, and Clara’s Mother.

Q. Which role are you looking forward to playing? And why?

A. One of the things that make The Nutcracker interesting is having the various roles to rotate throughout the run. For me, I particularly look forward to dancing the Sugarplum Fairy.  I enjoy the challenge for its pure classical technique, as well as in working to embody effortlessness, refinement, elegance and generosity–all of the qualities I envisioned as a young girl in the Sugarplum Fairy. Although I admit that hearing The Nutcracker music outside of the theater during the holiday season, especially after a two-show day, can be overwhelming. I look forward to dancing to this Tchaikovsky score. I think the music in Snow Scene and The Sugarplum pas de deux are so beautifully romantic and emotionally charged. This year, yet again, I’m inspired.

Springer and HB Artists IMG_3399

Artists of Houston Ballet; The Nutcracker; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Q. Which act in The Nutcracker is your favorite? And why?

A. My favorite to watch is the transformation from the Battle Scene into the Snow Scene and until the end of Act I. I cannot get over the dramatic change, which unfolds as Clara kills the King Rat. In a flash the soldiers disappear, the mice escape, the Nutcracker turns into a Prince, Clara is in a Land of Snow where a Snow Queen welcomes her in, and the mood of the music is changed in a matter of seconds. Then, from this calmness reminiscent of first snowfall of the year, the scene builds up yet again. This time with many dancing snowflakes, they create a soaring snow storm, leading Clara’s way to the Kingdom of the Sweets.

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Houston Ballet performs Ben Stevenson’s staging of The Nutcracker, featuring spectacular scenery and costumes by Desmond Heeley, November 29 – December 29 at Wortham Theater Center. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.houstonballet.org/TheNutcracker/ or call 713 227 2787 Monday – Friday 9 am – 6pm.

Watch a video preview of The Nutcracker

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