No matter what story I happened to be working on, Houston Ballet principal Barbara Bears always had time for me. “What do you need hon?” she would ask. So while I was interviewing her a few months back and she muttered in passing, “You know, I'm retiring,” I was shocked. Say it ain't so Barb. What about me? So soon? Again? (Bears retired for a year and a half after the birth of her precious son Ethan, now seven. Stanton Welch lured her back.)
Whether it was the subtle tilt of her chin, her daredevil ways in the airspace or her subtle gut-wrenching emotion in contemporary story ballets like Manon and Onegin, Bears always gave me a reason to write. And face it, when the choreography is less than terrific, there's always the dancing, and Bears always got that part right. She exuded that star quality that wasn't about quantity (although the girl could do anything), but about knowing how to command a stage. Not by what she does, but how she holds the space.
In some of my favorite Bears moments, she isn't doing anything. “Hey, sometimes doing nothing says everything,” she quips. “I love the part in Romeo and Juliet when the music swells to a crescendo and Juliet just sits on the bed.”
Bears is a generous soul on stage and off. When I was teaching dance writing for the Houston Ballet summer academy students, she allowed a room full of hopefuls to interview her en masse. “I guess I just love talking about myself,” she joked with the kids. She spoke about so many aspects of her life that I ended up with 20 different profiles of her.
Under Ben Stevenson, she witnessed first-hand the rise of Houston Ballet to the force it is to today. She traveled to Helsinki with him to compete in the International Ballet competition.
“The Chinese were complaining that they had only rehearsed for three months, which was pretty funny, since we had been rehearsing for all of three hours,” remembers Bears, who snagged the 1991 Silver Medal. “I have no idea how that happened. Sometimes you just go out there and do it. I had never seen Ben so surprised and relieved.”
With Welch, she had a second wind. “I love his ballets,” she says. “Ben was more of my ballet father, while Stanton was more my ballet husband.” Bears' fearless bravura in Welch's intricate partnering made for a synergistic relationship between muse and choreographer.
Accepted as an apprentice to American Ballet Theatre, she could have developed her career there. Lucky for us, she chose Houston.
She trained with Victoria Leigh and James Franklin, who believe strongly that dancers should know how to teach, to have something to fall back on and to better understand the inner workings of ballet technique. Bears took her first teacher training at age 14, and has been teaching off and on throughout her career. She plans to make a difference in the studio more often now, to “pass it on.”
She's also a certified scuba diver, a Star Wars nerd, a tap dancer, and can't live without dark chocolate.
The Jubilee of Dance: 40th Anniversary Celebration on Dec. 4 at the Wortham Center will feature film clips of Bears' best moments along with plenty of actual Bears dancing. She hand-picked the excerpt from Welch's Tutu for her big night.
“It's about a woman at the end of her career, looking in the mirror, and reflecting about her life,” says Bears. “I love this dance and well, it seems perfect for the occasion.”
To show off her dazzling quality, Bears pairs with Nicholas Leschke for The Merry Widow pas de deux. Makes sense; Bears always looks stunning at the top of the stairs in her Merry Widow Liz Taylor entrance.
She will also dance the iconic farewell ballet, The Dying Swan, which she learned from Marilyn Jones, Welch's famous ballerina mom.
“It's funny, this is the same piece of music that Ben used when he set his first piece on me when I was 16,” she muses. “I guess I've come full circle.”