Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Ballet is Making an Emotional Comeback for its First Live Performance in More Than a Year

Reigniting at Miller Outdoor Theatre Never Felt So Good

BY // 04.27.21
photography Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

Anyone near Hermann Park’s Miller Outdoor Theatre on May 7 and 8, should brace themselves for an explosion, a performing arts explosion that is. Yes, the Houston Ballet is performing live, in person for the first time in more than a year, for the very special world premiere of Reignited.

COVID kept the Bayou City’s internationally renowned company away from its home on the Wortham Center stage. More crushingly, it  also separated it from its beloved Houston audiences. Now with the reopening of Miller Outdoor Theatre dancers and audience are reuniting for their own longed for duet.

“Miller very much became the Everest we had to conquer,” Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch tells PaperCity. “We have to conquer this event because ultimately in a few more months we’re going to be back and we needed to start touching.”

Step of Two

Reignited might be organized rather differently than Houston Ballet fans have come to expect in the before times. Though the company was still finalizing the lineup when Welch spoke to us, he revealed the production will feature four or five live Pas de Deux and perhaps solo pieces. The company will intermix the live performances with films they’ve created over the last year, including the recently released series In Good Company.

This interweaving of live and filmed performance will showcase this pandemic year’s worth of the physical and creative work from the Houston Ballet. But there’s very practical health reasons for the lineup. Just to get two dancers on stage together, they have to COVID test three times a week and rehearse in masks.

When the masks come off as they move closer to the performance date, they’ll get COVID tested everyday. Meanwhile during the actual performance, safety rules call for a few minutes between each dance for the air to still, even for the outdoor stage at Miller.

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“It’s a very unusual show and of course there are restrictions because of COVID, but it’s a great relief to be onstage and to get back to what we do and touch each again,” Welch says. “We haven’t touched each other for a year.”

The Miller Outdoor show becomes so vital for the company because the pandemic took away a fundamental property of dance, the bodies in motion touching and breathing in the same space.

“I guess what I had not thought about as much until this experience, was that dance is not just your body,” Welch muses. “It’s the other bodies, and how much of dance and learning dance and choreographing is human beings connected together. Our art only gets created when we are together.”

The Great Pirouette

Like many performing arts companies, Houston Ballet made the great pirouette to film and streaming work, to continue to create and connect. It began with the fun video set to Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,”proving they were all still here, though separate. The video also served to spotlight the dancers’ comic timing to the whole world.

“Dancing With Myself” set the path to film and a way for Houston Ballet to virtually and then physically dance with each other again.

“We have to keep going,” Welch says they realized. “We can’t sit here for a year and hope that we can go back to what we had. Let’s create.”

From there they finally came together last fall, masked, in various outdoor settings across the city for “Restoration” danced to the music of the Canadian folk-bluegrass band, The Dead South.

“It’s a we will survive song in a way,” Welch says of the music and dance. “I wanted to capture that with the company and show our city that we weren’t done.”

Houston Ballet video shoot (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox)
“Restoration” was filmed at iconic landmarks throughout Houston. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox)

When I mention to Welch the video made me tear up a little on seeing the dancers dancing together outdoors in so many iconic Houston area locations from the Menil Collection to the Galveston Pier to Minute Maid Park, he notes they had a similar reaction producing it.

“That was very much why we did it,” Welch says. “It suddenly felt like we were making art again. We were performing again. That connection, however small, felt like a road somewhere rather than hiding away. It wasn’t hibernation it was growth, just growth in a different way.”

Even before the pandemic, Welch had ideas for a ballet set to the music from another Dead South album, Good Company. The success of “Restoration” led the way to a much more ambitious project, 11 dances set to songs from the album.

A Gift to the World

All of the films have been free to view on the Houston Ballet website and social media platforms. The new medium has brought them new viewers and fans across the globe. On another level, the short films have become a kind of Thank You present to the many generous supporters in Houston and around the world, a gift of the art they continue to create as a company.

“It felt disingenuous to keep trying to sell tickets for things like this because we’ve had so much support from our public that this is sort of the least we can do,” Welch says.

Houston Ballet – In Good Company (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox)
Houston Ballet Soloist Harper Watters in Stanton Welch’s In Good Company. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox)

While Welch doesn’t think they’ll now abandon this new-for-them film medium, the whole company hungers for live performances for an in-person audience. They’ll scale this Miller Everest that will lead them to new heights. Then sooner than we know the journey will continue to a new season, hopefully back in the Wortham.

“They’re craving to get back to a group,” Welch says of the dancers. “They’re craving to see an audience, to feel that connection. I don’t mean clapping, but when you’re on stage you can feel their energy.

“You can feel them watching, laughing, moving, bored, happy and that magic is something you lose in this world. That’s what they’re going to explode from. They have so much give.”

Reignited runs May 7 and 8 at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Tickets are free but with Miller’s new “Two-Step” ticketing and seating protocols in place.

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