Texas Ballet Theater has spent the last two years rebuilding its infrastructure, company and aesthetic presentation, trying to find out what a new Texas Ballet Theater (TBT) is supposed to look like. Will it be a company of just classical works or a company moving more toward contemporary ballet or one that finds a balance between the two?
For artistic director Ben Stevenson, the latter is winning out. For this season, he was committed to being more adventurous in his programming. While the beginning of the season was very much the typical-TBT offerings — with The Sleeping Beauty and The Merry Widow — this spring, Stevenson is ready for that change to come.
For this year’s “Masterworks,” Stevenson has put together TBT’s most diverse program to date. The classics are represented, with George Balanchine’s Rubies, as are the more contemporary with Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, Jonathan Watkins’ commissioned world premiere (which will be staged at the season-closing performance May 29-31 at Bass Hall in Fort Worth), and a work from Stevenson himself, Five Poems.
Crafting this program was not simple, quick or easy. “It’s quite a long process, and many years in the making, actually,” says Stevenson, “I put down a list of works that I would like to do, then we start to contact the choreographers [and] slowly all starts to come together.”
This will be the first time the company has performed Rubies under Stevenson’s direction (though they have done it many times in the past). “It keeps Balanchine in our repertoire, and that’s important to the company and to me. We’ve done many other pieces by him while I’ve been here, and we will continue to do so. I think audiences need to see his work.”
The classics are always important to keep alive, especially the work of Balanchine, which is fundamental, foundational, and inspirational. But equally as important is staging work that hasn’t been seen in Dallas before, and introducing audiences to new ideas, processes and promoting the collaborative spirit.
One way Stevenson is doing this is by re-staging Five Poems, an older work of his, and one that was created after he’d visited Jane Seymour’s house. He had taught her dance to when she was just 13, living in London and went by her real name Joyce Frankenberg. Yes, that Jane Seymour.
“I was visiting with her and saw her cloud formation paintings. Then one day, I was driving and listening to Wagner [the Wesendonck Songs] and fell in love with the music. Something in my mind wanted to connect the two. I asked [Jane] to create some cloud formations for the piece, and then went about interpreting the music.” The result is a melodic, ethereal, romantic trip through a watercolor sky by Seymour, in costumes by her as well.
But this work will only be performed at Dallas City Performance Hall, April 17-18, and will be replaced by the world premiere of a commissioned work by emerging British choreographer Jonathan Watkins, when TBT moves to Bass Hall, May 29-31.
The inclusion of Watkins is a bold, smart move. Watkins, who at 16 won the Kenneth MacMillan Choreography Award, is combining classical and contemporary movement to create a neo-classical quality that already has people talking. Watkins is also creating quite the connection in Texas. He’s committed to creating a work that will give back to the state and our own city, as he tapped Dallas-based composer Ryan Cockerham to create the music and Austin-based designer Kari Perkins to create the costumes.
Now, for the pièce de résistance — the work everyone has been talking about since TBT announced their season last year: Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort. Not just any company can get the rights to a Kylián work; some of the best in America have had the pleasure, including American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, but the process isn’t easy.
“A representative from [Kylián’s] estate came to visit us and to make sure that the company could handle the work,” Stevenson says. “I’ve wanted something from him for some time now and, luckily, [the representative] really connected with the company, and we were able to get Petite Mort.”
It’s one of his major works, and one of the most exciting works in recent dance history. Set to music from Mozart’s first two piano concertos (Nos. 21 and 23), it was created in 1991 to mark the second centenary of the death of the composer. The contemporary ballet blends classical sensibility with modern, sexy wit. Kylián’s serious and playful take on the meaning of “petite mort” gives us a new way to decipher the sexual symbolism presented.
“Kylián is an amazing man, an amazing choreographer, we are really lucky,” says Stevenson, “and I’m so proud of how the dancers have responded to his style. They love it! They are working very hard and are doing a terrific job. This isn’t an easy or simple piece and it’s asking a lot of them, but they are facing the challenge head on.”
“It’s like watching three different companies,” he continues. “It’s been terrific, both for myself and the dancers. I’m excited to see how the audience responds.” With its diversity, there is something for everyone in the program, and it’s not often that you get to see one of the world’s greatest choreographers — Kylián — and be a part of history. “Petite Mort is quickly becoming a classic, and people will want to see it, should see it because this piece will be one that is performed again and again for a very long time.”
Moreover, this program is a giant step forward for TBT. One that’s beginning the reinvention of North Texas’ premiere professional ballet company. The tides of the ballet world are changing: Contemporary ballet is finding itself front and center as more and more companies, both nationally and internationally, are presenting a mixed bill of classical and contemporary pieces, and more companies are promoting and presenting the work of young, emerging choreographers. Stevenson is aware of this, and is ready and willing to open up his company, exposing his dancers and artists to the new world of ballet.
“It’s like our Lady Gaga step forward,” said Stevenson. “She’s always reinventing herself, and making beautiful work.”
Who says ballet has to be so stuffy?