Mireille "Mimi" Hassenboehler is Ben's last ballerina, in that she is the last remaining principal appointed by former Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson. I've had my little play on Li Cunxin's Mao's Last Dancer story in my mind for some time now, I just didn't expect to be doing it for her last dance. Hassenboehler ends her 21-year career at Houston Ballet after her final performance as Hanna in The Merry Widow on Sept. 28. (She also performs this Thursday and Sunday.)
"Oh, what better way to go than with a glass of champagne and a waltz," quips Hassenboehler, trying to cheer me up.
And she's right, if ever there was a delightful exit ballet for a dancer with a smile as bright as Texas, it's The Merry Widow. “It's a role for a woman of substance — that's Mimi,” says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet's artistic director.
"I'm going to be mommy diva now. I have so much to learn about special education."
"It feels sudden," I tell her.
"It is and it isn't. I'm 40 and I can feel it," she replies.
The difficulties of raising a special needs child with a husband who travels a lot have caught up with the elegant dancer. "It's been challenging," Hassenboehler says. "I'm going to be mommy diva now. I have so much to learn about special education. That's my new career now."
Eventually, she also plans to hunker down and finish college. Returning to dance in some capacity will take place on her own time.
"I'm open to it, but I need a big hiatus from ballet. I want to take a big breath," Hassenboehler says. "One of the things I have learned from other dancers is that you need to separate yourself for a while. I want to learn some new things, and return with a fresh frame of mind."
Leaving Houston Ballet is bittersweet. Hassenboehler literally grew up there. "It's like breaking up with a boyfriend," she sighs, "Ballet is my first love. It's a big thing to leave."
The New Orleans native first came to Houston Ballet at 18 to study in the Academy. By the next year, Hassenboehler joined the company. "I spent what seemed like a lot of time in the corps before moving up," she recalls.
During her tenure at Houston Ballet, her repertoire was extensive, dancing all the major classical roles, and excelling in contemporary work. Her elongated lines proved a perfect match for Welch's crisp, geometric choreography. Welch cherished choreographing on her. "I started with Indigo and I never stopped," he says, with a tone of sadness in his voice.
"It's like breaking up with a boyfriend. Ballet is my first love. It's a big thing to leave."
Clearly, Welch is going to miss his leggy muse. “When you see her on stage welcoming the audience, that's really her. It's not an act," he says.
More than once life imitated art. While she was preparing to get married she danced Jiří Kylián's Svadebka, which chronicled the tale of a bride and groom. While Hurricane Katrina was destroying her hometown, she was dancing Kylián's Forgotten Land, which deals with the power of the sea overtaking the land. Hassenboehler possesses a powerful fluency in Kylián's work, which she explains articulately.
"I understood the movement immediately because I could see a connection with Stanton's vocabulary," she says. "His work prepared me for Kylián's, I could feel the lineage. I always found one ballet prepared me for the next."
First soloist Linnar Looris partners her in The Merry Widow. As a fellow tall dancer, he relishes the opportunity to take this last waltz with her.
"She trusts her partner fully, which builds a lot of confidence to work through even the hardest moves," Looris says. "She has a lot of patience, and it makes any role or partnership as perfect as it can be, something that one does not always expect from a principal ballerina.
"And she has a great sense of humor. It makes the whole process from the studio to the stage easy and fun."
Hassenboehler will be honored during the Jubilee of Dance on Dec. 6 with a special video tribute. We will miss her radiance on and off stage. I will miss the zest she brought to every single role.
Although the ballerina is heading for the departure gate, she's right on her game, ready to deliver a breathtaking goodbye. "It's odd to be exit mode and gearing up at the same time," she says. "But I don't want to sizzle out. There's no backing off."
That beaming smile, those gorgeous legs and generous heart, we get one more chance to see the magic that is Mimi.