Posts Tagged ‘Merrill Ashley’


Dancing Balanchine

June 7, 2013

Houston Ballet is presenting the company premiere of George Balanchine’s 1941 masterpiece Ballet Imperial through Sunday, June 9 on the program Journey with the Masters. Performing the works of George Balanchine presents special stylistic challenges for a dancer, especially those who didn’t grow up training in a school heavily influenced by the Balanchine style.

Sara Webb and Artists of Houston Ballet_MG_4806-2

Principal dancer Connor Walsh has performed many ballets by George Balanchine.  In this blog entry, Connor shares his experiences of finding the correct musicality of Balanchine’s works and the impact of the coaching of two highly regarded répétiteurs of Balanchine’s work, Victoria Simon and Merrill Ashley, who coached and staged Ballet Imperial for Houston Ballet.

  1. Which ballets choreographed by George Balanchine have you danced the lead in?  In what ways did they push/develop you as a dancer and an artist? 

Connor:   I’ve been fortunate enough to dance the lead in Apollo, Tchaikovsky Pas de deux, Ballo Della Regina, Theme and Variations, Western Symphony, Symphony in CRubies and Diamonds. Each ballet presented its own set of challenges for me that has helped me improve and approach my work in a different way.


Ballet: Apollo; Dancers: Connor Walsh and Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

  1. What are the particular challenges of dancing the Balanchine style for a dancer who didn’t grow up training in the Balanchine style?

 Connor: As I mentioned before every ballet is filled with its own challenges. But when it comes to Balanchine’s style, I would say it is in his musicality. The musicality his steps require is both his ballet’s biggest challenge, but also the key to mastering them.

When first approaching his work I tried to give equal effort to every step that I did, but I was finding that even with all of my effort, something was missing. I didn’t feel as if I was dancing poorly but I wasn’t quite getting the correct style.

Since Balanchine’s work is so classically based, it is hard not to approach them with the same technical emphasis as other classical ballets. But once I began to open my mind about why Balanchine dancers dance with a slightly affected style, I started to realize that it wasn’t without reason. More often than not, it is to get the most out of a step within the musicality that is required.

So now when approaching Balanchine’s work, I try to find the correct musicality before anything else in hopes of understanding what part of the step is the most important — and will clearly allow the audience to see the music coming through the steps.


 Ballet: Apollo; Dancers: Connor Walsh and Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

  1. How is Balanchine’s legacy transmitted through stagers such as Victoria Simon and Merrill Ashley who taught and coached Houston Ballet dancers in Ballet Imperial? What special nuggets of wisdom have they shared while working with Houston Ballet’s dancers that have resonated with him/stayed with him?

Connor: It’s very special to work with people who performed for Balanchine himself and have danced and seen his works performed at their best. It  is important for dancers to bring their own imagination to their dancing. But it is equally important to hear exactly what Balanchine had in mind for certain sections. Or there may be some underlying symbolism that may not be obvious, but is incredibly valuable.

Merrill-Ashley-and-Connor-Walsh_Dance Talks

 Courtesy of Houston Ballet

  1. You did extensive research on the great Balanchine ballerina Merrill Ashley and her work with Balanchine to interview Ms. Ashley for Dance Talks sponsored by Houston Ballet on April 15 at the Center for Dance. Did you come across anything in your research that was particularly impactful?

I had a blast doing research and eventually interviewing Merrill. She made my life extremely easy for two reasons. One, she had a very rich career. Two, she was a real pleasure to talk to.

What I found most impactful was that Balanchine’s style and approval did not seem to come easy to her, so throughout her career she had to work extremely hard. Through her hard work and dedication she gained a true understanding of what she was doing. Some dancers have such natural gifts that they often never have to learn what makes them great. But Merrill’s greatness came from hard work and gaining knowledge that she can now pass on to other dancers.


From May 30 – June 9, 2013 Houston Ballet offers up a mixed repertory program titled Journey with the Masters featuring the company premiere of Ballet Imperial, George Balanchine’s tribute to Marius Petipa and Peter Tchaikovsky, alongside revivals of Jirí Kylián’s exuberant and joyous Sinfonietta (not seen in Houston since 1997) and Jerome Robbins’s The Concert, a laugh-out-loud ballet depicting a group of concertgoers at a performance with keen insight to human behavior.

Tickets may be purchased by calling 713-227-2787 or by visiting

Ballet: Ballet Imperial; Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Artists of Houston Ballet_MG_5031-2


Merrill Ashley Shares the Legacy of Balanchine at Dance Talks on April 16

April 2, 2013

On Tuesday, April 16 from 8:00 – 9:00 pm, join Houston Ballet for a free Dance Talk in which the great American ballerina Merrill Ashley will be interviewed by principal dancer Connor Walsh about her career, her collaborations with the legendary choreographer George Balanchine, and her staging of the Houston premiere of Balanchine’s masterpiece, Ballet Imperial, running May 30 – June 9 as part of Houston Ballet’s program Journey with the Masters.

NYCB Rep - Steven Caras_Merril Ashley

Dancer: Merrill Ashley; Photo: Steven Caras

The Tuesday, April 16 Dance Talk is free and open to the public at Houston Ballet Center for Dance, 601 Preston Street, 77002.  For more information or questions, please contact marketing manager Elizabeth Cleveland:, or 713 535 3236.

Merrill Ashley

Headshot: Merrill Ashley

During her 31-year career as a dancer with New York City Ballet, Merrill Ashley was considered one of the great Balanchine ballerinas, and she now helps keep George Balanchine’s legacy alive by staging his ballets for companies around the world. For more information on Ms. Ashley, visit:


Off to the Races

May 3, 2010

Guest writer: Andrew Edmonson, director of marketing and public relations

Houston Ballet’s dancers are leaping towards the conclusion of our 2009-2010 season.  Instead of a leisurely stroll around the home stretch, the company is engaged in an all-out sprint to the finish line on June 20, performing seven ballets, in three venues, in two different states, over the next seven weeks. 

First up on the calendar is an annual rite of spring for the company:  three free performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre Friday, May 7 – Sunday, May 9.   This year, Stanton has put together a stellar program that showcases the contemporary side of the company’s repertoire:  Nacho Duato’s modern classic Jardí Tancat  (literal translation:  Enclosed Garden), set to the haunting Spanish folk songs of  Marie del Mar Bonet; Twyla Tharp’s groundbreaking work In the Upper Room that takes its audience on an exalted journey from earth to a more transcendent space; and Stanton’s beautifully classical work for five couples to the music of Mozart, Falling.   Take a peak at Stanton’s Falling on Youtube. 

From May 27 – June 6, the company returns to Wortham Theater Center to present Pecos, a mixed repertory program featuring the company premiere of George Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina.  A very special style is required to perform Balanchine’s works.   Our dancers have been blessed to be taught and coached in Ballo by the legendary American ballerina Merrill Ashley, who not only had the good fortune to work with Balanchine from 1967 to 1983, but also created the leading female role in Ballo in 1978. 

“Balanchine always seemed to take special delight in challenging me with difficult steps, and since he knew I excelled at moving quickly, he decided to make that the feature of Ballo – virtuoso steps at high speed,” commented Ms. Ashley.  “He highlighted all my strengths in Ballo, giving me a ballet that not only was challenging and fun to dance, but one that gave me the opportunity to communicate the joy of dance, which was my favorite mood to express on stage. Ballo epitomizes the essence of the technique that he advocated, as it requires extreme precision, clarity, speed, and expansive movement. Dancers who are not trained in the Balanchine style are always startled to find how much easier the steps are when they use the technique Balanchine advocated. His choreography is constructed with the idea that the steps will be done as he would have taught them. That is what makes the angles of the steps look best, and what makes the transitions from step-to-step possible at high speeds.”

For more information on Ms. Ashley and her amazing career, read a 1997 interview with her in The New York Times discussing her special link to Balanchine, and the 1997 review of her final performance with New York City Ballet detailing so many of the qualities that audience adored about her.

A very different balletic style is required to perform the works of Sir Frederick Ashton, whose 1960 masterpiece La Fille mal gardée closes Houston Ballet’s season on June 10-20.  The English critic Alastair Macaulay has observed, “The ballet style shown in Ashton’s ballets is a particularly intricate one, with upper and lower body maintaining a lively activity, and many internal embellishments of head, arms, épaulement and footwork.”  Two experts in the Ashton style have been in Houston helping our dancers to prepare to perform Fille:  Englishman Christopher Carr, a former dancer and ballet master with London’s Royal Ballet, and Australian Grant Coyle, principal dance notator to The Royal Ballet.

There will be no rest for the weary.  The weekend after Fille opens, ten Houston Ballet dancers will hop on a plane to Washington, D.C. to perform Stanton’s work, Falling, for the prestigious national ballet festival, Ballet Across America II, at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Houston Ballet was a part of the very successful first installment of Ballet Across America in 2008 and is very happy to make its 8th appearance at The Kennedy Center.  Houston Ballet opens the festival Tuesday, June 15 and Wednesday, June 16 on a program with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Then the ten dancers who performed in Ballet Across America will rush back to Houston for the final four performances of Fille June 18 – 20.  And then, it’s off to a very well-deserved long summer break for most of the company. 



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