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Pillow talk: Houston Ballet's Stanton Welch learns as he teaches at fabled summer dance festival

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Stanton Welch in rehearsal with dancers Ryan Sargent and Emily McLaughlin Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima
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After the performance, Stanton Welch, far right, with the dancers of The School at Jacob's Pillow Photo by Christina Lane
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Dancers of The School at Jacob's Pillow Ricardo Santos de Paula and JoAnna Schmidt perform at the Pillow's Season Opening Gala in Stanton Welch's world premiere. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima
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Stanton Welch and Program Director Anna Marie Holmes look on during a rehearsal at The School at Jacob's Pillow. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima
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Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch at Jacob’s Pillow Photo by Ron McKinney
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"Don't be so frantic," Stanton Welch tells his new charges, 22 dancers from The School at Jacob's Pillow Ballet Program, as he puts the finishing touches on his world premiere ballet for the annual Pillow Gala. The ballet is just jammed packed with Welch-isms: sharp, dynamic movement contrasted with soft details of a hand or head, dense thickets of dancers on stage followed by a delicate solo, and a healthy dose of daredevil partnering.

"It must be fun to be lifted into the air," Welch tells one dancer, trying to convey the inherent joy in the movement.

The dancers, mostly pre-professional or in the early stages of their careers, hail from 10 countries and 19 different dance institutions. "I love the multiculturalism here," says Welch.

They have all come to the two-week summer dance program in western Massachusetts to sharpen their saws, and who better to help out than Welch; his ballets are known for their speedy pace, intricate details and technical difficulty. 

"Choreography is about making a dancer grow," says Welch, who is here for the first time as a choreographer.  "That's why I want to work in schools. I like to work right on the edge of their capabilities. That's how artists are made."

  "What I love about the program here is how they involve the students in every aspect of dance, from sewing costumes to cleaning the studio," Welch says. "It really makes you appreciate everything that goes into dance."

 Although Welch has been in residence for less than 48 hours, he already looks at home in the rustic quarters of the Ben & Estelle Sommers Studio. What a study in contrasts to see Welch at this treasured dance landmark  after just seeing him at his brand new Center for Dance, a building just in the beginnings of its history.  

Welch uses his ballet as a teaching tool, interjecting choice bits of wisdom on partnering, expression and musicality. His signature twists on classical vocabulary are lessons in and of themselves in nuance. The Houston Ballet chief looks inspired by the setting. It's no wonder, as ballet legends from Alexandra Danilova to Nina Ananiashvili have graced these grounds. I should also add that Jacob's Pillow recently received the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama.

Welch and I were not the only Houston folk at the Pillow. Dennis Marshall a director at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School joined the faculty for the week. Marshall is the son of Margo Marshall, one of Houston's most distinguished ballet teachers. With an impressive dance resume, including stints at American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, Marshall is one famous hometown dance son. He was deeply impressed with the structure of the Pillow program.

"I'm amazing at how much can get done in a short period of time," Marshall says. 

Watching Welch in action is a reminder that the training of a ballet dancer is so much larger than having perfect feet and long legs. It's about being able to take direction, work with your co-dancers and learn choreography quickly. On top of all that, there's the development of the artist, which translates to the ability to communicate through movement.

The ballet program here aims to work toward those noble goals, and in a period of just two weeks. Unlike other summer intensives, the Pillow offers a concentrated experience. Under the direction of legendary ballerina  Anna-Marie Holmes, the program gives students an opportunity to work with the nation's leading teachers and choreographers, along with master classes, talks, and time in the Pillow's extensive archives. It's a charged fortnight, where a lot can happen for these students, who are on the threshold of their dancing futures. Holmes travels the world setting ballets yet still finds time to guest teach at Margo Marshall's School in Houston. 

Welch cherished the chance to get out of Houston's hustle and bustle after the close of Houston Ballet's season.

"I've always heard of the Pillow, even in Australia. It's been on my wish list of dance destinations, but I never imagined that I would be choreographing here," says Welch. "I love working in a place with a great history of dance like the Pillow."  

Although he has spent the majority of his time here making and polishing his ballet, he allowed himself some moments to soak in the Pillow's atmosphere. "I was captivated by the old programs hanging up in the studio, especially seeing Anna-Marie's name up there," he says. "I walked the wildlife trail. Nature is inspiring."

Welch's splendid ballet, which was the centerpiece of last week's opening gala, will be performed on the Inside/Out Stage tonight, along with outstanding performances by Mark Morris Dance Group, Philip Glass, Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in a piece by Benjamin Millepied, KEIGWIN + COMPANY and David Neumann, who just recently performed with Hope Stone at Barnevelder. Larry Keigwin arrives in Houston this November to set his high-octane Caffeinated on The Metropolitan Dance Company

Earlier this week, the students enjoyed a master class taught by Russian ballerina Alexandra Koltun, while Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater led them through the classic paces of La Sylphide for the rest of the week. 

Welch has since returned to Houston Ballet to some 319 summer Intensive students from 12 countries and 31 states, taking with him some Pillow wisdom. "What I love about the program here is how they involve the students in every aspect of dance, from sewing costumes to cleaning the studio," Welch says. "It really makes you appreciate everything that goes into dance."

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