Posts Tagged ‘Stravinsky’


Discussing Ekman’s CACTI with Stager Spenser Theberge

May 27, 2016

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.”

EZ7A4110  Artists of HB

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.

EZ7A4280  Artists of HB

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.

EZ7A4692  Artists of HB

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 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.


Who were the women who inspired George Balanchine’s Jewels?

September 27, 2010

Guest writer: Sarah Meals, marketing manager

There are mixed reports on what exactly inspired George Balanchine to choreograph his three-act abstract ballet Jewels.  Some texts say he admired the famous Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry firm, and the gemstones were the actual inspiration for the movement.  Other texts say the ballet had nothing to do with jewels; the dancers were just dressed like gems by way of Karinska’s famous costumes.  Regardless, most reports confirm that Balanchine was equally inspired by his musical selections (Fauré, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky) and three ballerinas whom he adored:  Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, and perhaps most of all, Suzanne Farrell.

Violette Verdy was a French ballerina who danced with New York City Ballet from 1958 to 1977.  Verdy was an unusual addition to New York City Ballet due to her idiosyncratic way of accenting the music, a trait which may not have appealed to Balanchine.  However, within two years of joining the company, Balanchine created six roles especially for her.  Her moody, soul-searching spirit was perfect for the first soloist role in Emeralds, which required extended legato dance phrases.  After retiring from the stage, Verdy held brief directorship stints at Paris Opéra Ballet and Boston Ballet before becoming a guest teacher and choreographer.

Patricia McBride danced with New York City Ballet from 1959 to 1989 and became one of its most beloved stars.  McBride never quite fit the conventional image of a Balanchine ballerina, but she sailed through some of Balanchine’s most difficult classical ballets, such as Theme and Variations.  Balanchine choreographed the lead role of Rubies on her, showcasing her ability to dance breathtakingly complex choreography with a teasing, lighthearted smile.  Her huge eyes endeared her to New York City Ballet audiences.  She is perhaps best known for creating the role of Swanilda in Balanchine’s version of Coppélia.

Suzanne Farrell is one of the most highly regarded American ballerinas of the 20th century.  She joined New York City Ballet in 1961, eventually working her way up to principal status, until she retired in 1989.  Farrell took a brief 5-year leave of absence from New York City Ballet (1970-1975) when she married fellow dancer Paul Mejia, which strained her relationship with Balanchine.

Balanchine referred to Farrell as his “Stradivarius.”  She was one of the Balanchine’s greatest muses, and he created countless works on her.  The Diamonds pas de deux showed off Farrell’s limitless capacities for classical dancing and reflected Balanchine’s reverence for her.  Ms. Farrell now runs her own dance company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which performs at the Kennedy Center.  She was one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2005.


Q&A with New Houston Ballet Soloist Melissa Hough

August 16, 2010

Guest writer: Sarah Lam, public relations intern

Melissa Hough is one of Houston Ballet’s newest additions for the 2010-2011 season. She joins the company as a soloist and already feels right at home as she settles into rehearsals for George Balanchine’s Jewels.

SL: Where did you dance before joining Houston Ballet?
MH: I was with Boston Ballet for 7 seasons.

SL: What made you decide to make the move to Houston Ballet?
MH: There were lots of reasons. I knew Stanton (Welch) and enjoyed working with him at Ballet Met. So as I found out more about the company it seemed like a good option. I really like that Houston Ballet gives lots of opportunities to its dancers. Your career is so short that there’s not much time to waste. Also, I couldn’t do Boston winters anymore! I didn’t want to keep putting my icy toes into pointe shoes!

SL: How do you like Houston so far?
MH: I love how warm it is in the winter. It’s surprising how green it is. When people think of Texas they have the stereotypical vision of a flat desert but Houston has almost a tropical feel.

SL: I hear you’re doing rehearsals for Houston Ballet’s performance of Jewels. Have you danced this part before?
MH: Yes. I had the Rubies lead 2 seasons ago. I performed it on tour in Spain.

SL: This is a new piece for Houston Ballet but not for you. Do you find yourself ahead of the curve so to speak, or is it just as difficult the second time around?
MH: I do feel like I know more and don’t have to ask as many questions. However, the music for Rubies, which is by Stravinsky, is difficult to dance to.

SL: What makes dancing Jewels so challenging?
MH: Balanchine’s work sneaks up on you. It doesn’t seem that difficult until you put it all together. Fortunately, I had lots of exposure to Balanchine in Boston so I feel at home doing it but I still have miles to go.

The biggest thing is that it’s all about the ballerina. You have to play the role and be on top of your technique. There’s lots of pressure because Balanchine’s work pushes you, you’ll be at the point where you feel you’re done and then have 2 more entrances!

SL: Which ballet in Jewels is your favorite?
MH: Overall, Rubies but I like all of them. It’s a great piece of work.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 145 other followers