Society / Featured Parties

10 Years of Grand Houston Ballet Balls — Legendary Society Writer Shelby Hodge Looks Back

A Dazzling Tradition Like No Other

BY // 01.12.22

My first assignment as society editor, then with the Houston Chronicle, was more years ago than I care to remember but I will allow that the event was a Houston Ballet Ball held in the Grand Foyer of Wortham Theater Center. I purchased my ballgown at a fancy resale shop. I gave myself the assignment of memorizing 20 names and faces from this writing debut and 20 more with each additional society event until I had mastered the roster of the city’s society mavens.

A girl has to start somewhere.

Many years later, shortly after my departure from the Chronicle to help launch CultureMap, I was thrilled to be the Ballet Ball honoree. That was 10 years ago. When the curtain rises on the 2022 ball next month, my gown will be designer, fresh from a favorite retailer. I will know 90 percent of the players. They will undoubtedly all know me.

This anniversary of  that night in the spotlight brings to mind a review of the past decade of Houston Ballet Balls, each one as grand as can be and each a financial success for the acclaimed company. The theme of the 2012 ball was “Aubergine,” the favorite color of the honoree and that of ball co-chair Becca Cason Thrash. Cason Thrash, co-chair Greggory Burk and myself dressed to the theme in designer gowns reflecting the color. The evening raised a record $1.4 million.

The following seven years, the ball theme was based on a ballet presentation as Richard Flowers and The Events Company worked in tandem with the ball chairs to develop a dazzling tableau for the black-tie evenings.

“Each year, the ball’s theme traditionally aligns with a featured production or world premiere which usually falls in February, offering attendees a glimpse inside of the creativity, artistry and vision of what’s going to be seen onstage,” Houston Ballet managing director Jim Nelson tells PaperCity.

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“To see a theme like Jewels, Swan Lake, or Romeo and Juliet come to life as an immersive experience the night of the ballet ball, connects us even closer to our Houston audiences and community. For the guests themselves to be among the swans, dazzling gemstones, or members of the Montague and Capulet families – it’s always a magical evening.”

2013 Ball – Fulton Davenport
Kelli Cohen-Fein chaired the 2013 Houston Ballet Ball for which the decor reflected the upcoming ‘The Rite of Spring’ performance. (Photo by Fulton Davenport)

A Grand Ballet Tradition

In 2013 The Rite of Spring was inspiration for the gala chaired by Kelli Cohen Fein and Martin Fein. It was a first for the use of LED lighting to enhance the decorative mood in the Grand Foyer. It was also a first for Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch to dance in public. He led a coterie of 18 male dancers to the tune of Beyoncé’s “Halo” in a tribute to the gala honoree, ballet patron Lynn Wyatt. At the time, Welch told this writer: “Only for Lynn. I felt like I wanted to make it something special for her.”

Shawn Stephens and Jim Jordan took the helm in 2014 when the gala honored Welch. The theme “La Mille et Deuxième Nuit” was a salute to the American premiere of Aladdin by David Bintley with the Wortham Theater Center Grand Foyer dressed to summon the palatial opulence of the sultans and princesses of Aladdin.

The world premiere of Welch’s Romeo and Juliet provided inspiration for the 2015 masked ball theme chaired by Melissa and Michael Mithoff with co-chairs Monsour Taghdisi and Henry Richardson. Tables were set with mirrors, crystal candelabras and floating candles in lieu of flowers. Houston Ballet Academy students and company members presented a romantic dance saluting the evening’s honorees Phoebe and Bobby Tudor.

2016 Ball – Wilson Parish Photograghy
Ballet Ball 2016 ball chairs Gina and Dr. Devinder Bhatia saluted Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ with a From Russia With Love theme. (Photo by Wilson Parish)

The Grand Foyer was transformed into a snowy Russian forest in 2016 when Gina and Dr. Devinder Bhatia chaired the ball that gave a nod to Tchaikovsky, whose Sleeping Beauty was next up on the Houston Ballet performance schedule. For the “From Russia With Love” theme, The Events Company covered the walls in layers upon layers of blue organza and up-lighting to create the ambiance of an icy paradise, complete with an ice sculpture replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

In 2017 Anne and Albert Chao chaired the “Enchantment” themed gala that saluted Welch’s choreography for Cinderella. Beyond the Camelot-esque castle decor by The Events Company, Houston Ballet Academy students dressed as eerie spirits from the graveyard scene of Welch’s choreographed story.

Houston Ballet Ball chair Hallie Vanderhider took fashion to the ultimate when she chaired the “Swan Lake” ball in 2018. She wore a Naeem Khan gown composed of 3,500 hand-sewn, black coque feathers (rooster tails) flowing with a mammoth train. Due to Harvey and Wortham Center flooding, the gala had to be held in lavishly decorated tents in the parking lot of Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance.  Houston Ballet Academy students, costumed from Swan Lake’s corps de ballet, welcomed guests and posed for selfies. Focal points were the massive swans — Odette and Odile — suspended overhead and the bevy of petite black and white swans which floated in a pool.

(Photo by Wilson Parish)
With Wortham Theater Center closed due to Harvey flooding the 2019 Houston Ballet Ball was held in a party tent at the Center for Dance where the decorative theme was ‘Heroes, Gods and Stars’ (Photo by Wilson Parish)

Besties Kelley and Stephen Lubanko and Leigh and Reggie Smith chaired the “Heroes, Gods and Stars” ball in 2019 in a nod to the upcoming performance of Sylvia. Also held in a party tent as the Wortham was still closed, the ball  generated a much needed windfall of $1.6 million while featuring the mythical story of a Greek huntress/heroine for which ballet artistic director  Welch showcased key figures from Greek mythology. Constellations sparkled above the black-tie crowd.

The Grandest Of Them All

The grandest of all had to be the 2020 Ballet Ball 50th anniversary gala, which soared as an $1.8 million evening only days before COVID-19 canceled all gatherings. A nine foot tall cake, 50 battery-operated candles, gold and shimmering white confetti bursts contributed to the flower-encased, golden cocoon. It started with covering the Wortham Center carpet with a cream carpet, which along with the soaring walls draped ceiling to floor in shimmering silk, cosseted the beautiful throng in elegance.

Of course, 2021 was not the same due to the pandemic. It was a remote, non-glittering fundraiser.

Making up for lost time is the upcoming gala, set for February 19 at Wortham Theater Center. The Events Company once again takes the helm of creating a fantasy environment that will reflect the upcoming production of George Balanchine’s Jewels. The “jewels” will salute the dancers of the company that maintained their talent and commitment during the dark months of the pandemic isolation. Stephanie and Frank Tsuru chair with Kelli and John Weinzierl serving as co-chairs.

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