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The real history of the Houston Ballet: New movie brings dance drama to life

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Houston Ballet artist of the Houston Ballet in La Bayadere 2013
Artists of the Houston Ballet in La Bayadere, 2013, choregraphed by Stanton Welch after Marius Petipa Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
filmmaker John Carrithers director with camera
Filmmaker/director John Carrithers Photo by EarsAreGood/Flickr
Houston Ballet Joseph Walsh, Nozomi Iijima in The Rite of Spring choreographed by Stanton Welch
Joseph Walsh and Nozomi Iijima in The Rite of Spring, 2013, choreographed by Stanton Welch Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet artist Carlos Acosta
Artist Carlos Acosta Photo by Drew Donovan
Stevenson, Fonteyn in 1978 (Swan Lake coaching) Andrea Vodehnal and Whit Haworth
Ben Stevenson and Andrea Vodehnal in 1978 Photo by Jim Caldwell/Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Houston Ballet Swan Lake 1976, Act III Andrea Vodehnal and Whit Haworth
Houston Ballet's 1976 production of Swan Lake with Andrea Vodehnal and Whit Haworth Photo courtesy of Houston Ballet
Houston Ballet Carmina Burana (circa 1975) Adrian James, Melissa Lowe 1974
Adrian James and Melissa Lowe in Carmina Burana, circa 1975, choreographed by James Clouser Photo by Jim Caldwell/Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Houston Ballet artist of the Houston Ballet in La Bayadere 2013
filmmaker John Carrithers director with camera
Houston Ballet Joseph Walsh, Nozomi Iijima in The Rite of Spring choreographed by Stanton Welch
Houston Ballet artist Carlos Acosta
Stevenson, Fonteyn in 1978 (Swan Lake coaching) Andrea Vodehnal and Whit Haworth
Houston Ballet Swan Lake 1976, Act III Andrea Vodehnal and Whit Haworth
Houston Ballet Carmina Burana (circa 1975) Adrian James, Melissa Lowe 1974
Nancy Wozny, head shot, September 2012

The Ballet Russe makes a pit stop in Houston over the holidays during the 1930s. They hit the road again, leaving enough hearts stirred by the spell of ballet magic to launch the first seed of what would  become Houston Ballet, the nation's fourth largest ballet company.

Every ballet company has its story, how it got started, who raised the stakes, and the ever-evolving roster of dancers we love to watch bloom in front of our eyes.

Finally, Houston's storied troupe has a documentary to call its own, when Houston Ballet: Breaking Boundaries premieres at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival (HCAF) on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with a second screening as part of Spotlight on Houston on Nov. 11 at 6:45 p.m. at Sundance Cinemas. I will be moderating the panel after the MFAH screening.

Directed by Houston filmmaker John Carrithers and produced by Delicia Harvey, it's the sole dance film of this year's festival, which in the past, has included such outstanding dance films as Wim Wender's Pina 3D, Fred Wiseman's La Danse and Andrew Garrison's Trash Dance.

 The final effect allows the audience to experience one of the city's cultural pillars as a shifting story, not unlike the art form it depicts. 

Trish Rigdon, HCAF's executive director, is such a dance fan that she produces a Julydoscope, a dance concert and film event at Discovery Green every summer.

"When we found out that this documentary was in the making, it was an amazing opportunity to collaborate with the Houston Ballet again," Rigdon says. "We have looking to do that ever since we worked with them on The Red Shoes at Discovery Green."

The film arrives at an important threshold for the company, as artistic director Stanton Welch celebrates his first decade at the helm. "It was time," Welch says. "After watching the Joffrey Ballet documentary, I saw what's possible."

Carrithers is known locally as the filmmaker for the arts, having completed projects for The Menil Collection, Houston Grand Opera and Asia Society Texas Center. Prior to this documentary, the only time he had filmed dance was for his collaboration with Douglas Newman, using a high-speed camera to capture Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite and contemporary dancer Courtney Jones. Dance was relatively new to him. Carrithers and his producer/wife, Harvey, spent a year digging through DVDs, photos and other archives, traveling all over the world to conduct oral history interviews, and basically breathing in ballet 24/7.

Today, they are both well on their way to becoming certified ballet geeks.

"I'm only interested in making documentaries about things happening right now," Carrithers told me a few years back when we were both co-workers at the now defunct Caroline Collective. A story still in motion has a different appeal.

What better subject then a dance company? And true to his mission, the documentary provides breathtaking footage of the company, some shot from the wings, some shot from even the catwalk above the stage. "We just started filming, knowing we would need the footage," Carrithers says.

"How did you get that footage of Swan Lake when the company wasn't performing it?", I ask. "You mean La Bayadere's 'Kingdom of the Shades'?", Carrithers replies, with a touch of bravado. Impressed by his ballet street cred, I continue, "Was it scary being up there in the catwalk?" "Only if the camera fell," he jokes.

 "I fell in love with ballet during this project. It's so amazing to witness these dancers." 

They organized the documentary according to the various artistic directors, which takes us chronologically through the time span of the company thus far. With Carrithers behind the camera and Harvey doing the heavy research, they made a perfect team. Harvey's deep sleuthing even unearthed the company's second director, Nina Popova, alive and kicking at 92 in New York. Her interview gives us a  firsthand experience of the more humble days of the operation.

They traveled to the Royal Opera House in London to film Houston Ballet's former superstar Carlos Acosta, who shares what it was like to go from being a misbehaving kid in Cuba to international sensation.

Inside Dance

Key personal stories punctuate the film, such as Stevenson's discovery of Janie Parker, James Clouser's rock ballet, Lauren Anderson breaking the ballet race barrier, Li Cunxin's dramatic tale, chronicled in his book Mao's Last Dancer. Carrithers establishes a vibrant rhythm between talking heads and dancing bodies. We see the ballet through many sets of eyes — from the legendary Parker to Christopher Bruce, who has a 25-year relationship with the company, to Barbara Bears to current principals Mennite and Connor Walsh.

Vintage footage of Stevenson in China from Robert Cozens at Houston PBS makes for some dramatic storytelling. The archives at the Houston Chronicle along with the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas helped fill in the blanks.

The final effect allows the audience to experience one of the city's cultural pillars as a shifting story, not unlike the art form it depicts.

As Carrithers and Harvey put the finishing touches on the film, it's obvious that they have caught the ballet bug big time.

"I could film dance every day," he says. "I fell in love with ballet during this project. It's so amazing to witness these dancers, who have committed their entire life to this art form. We feel as if we witnessed the company from within.

"To see 54 dancers create this much beauty is exhilarating. There's going to be a lot more dance on our calendar."

Want a glimpse? Here's the trailer for Houston Ballet: Breaking Boundaries.

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