Okay, so the moving eyeball videos on suspended orbs were a little disconcerting. But that was the only less-than-glowing review of the unprecedented decor of Saturday night's Houston Ballet Ball. Chairs Jana and Richard Fant and Laura and John Spalding stepped waaaaaaaay outside of the traditional gala box with their "Surreal Movement" theme that saw the Grand Foyer of Wortham Theater Center transformed into a Salvador Dali dreamscape.
Clocks dripped from bare tree branches that were suspended chandelier-style from the ceiling. Eyes of various styles were projected on walls that were lighted in swaths of orange and sweeps of purple. In place of lavish centerpieces, cockeyed flower arrangements prevailed — anemones with eyeballs in their centers, bouquets of deep blue roses and bunches of multi-colored "disco roses." In the ball entry area, scores of candles dangled from above and bouyant tutus floated as if in thin air.
The Fants and Spaldings had called for a playful departure from black-tie gala traditions and designer Rebekah Johnson delivered. She explained that while there were echoes of Magritte in the decor, the scene was primarily inspired by last year's Dali show at the MOMA in New York.
Internationally-acclaimed party designer Ben Bourgeois of Los Angeles, guest of the ball's honorees John and Becca Cason Thrash, applauded the setting. Even venerable social figure Margaret Williams, a traditionalist by all expectations, praised the unusual and somewhat spare decor. It wasn't just the look of the room that spoke of the unexpected. Ballet patron Lynn Wyatt stepped out in "surreal" splendor in a multi-colored Carolina Herrera gown that fairly dazzled with Dali vibes. And we loved her Philip Treacy black cocktail hat that brought the look together. Others dressed with Magritte-inspired top hats, seamed stockings and dresses jazzed up with "surreal" touches.
"The most surreal thing about this evening," John Thrash quipped as he and Becca were being honored, "is that I'm up here on this stage." Actually, there was nothing surreal about it. As Houston Ballet trustee Jay Jones said on introducing the honorees, the Thrashes have contributed generously themselves and raised millions of dollars for worthy causes both locally and internationally. Houston arts groups in particular have been the beneficiary of their largesse.
Caterer Jackson Hicks was on board with the theme. During cocktails, waiters passed quail breasts served from elaborate bird cages. Sugar snap peas stuffed with Boursin were hung from wire trees and puff pastries were served on artistic clock faces. Dinner was a visual piece-de-resistance (quite delicious as well) beginning with the "Coquille Man Ray" served in a shell on a bed of deep-green and orange sea salt — hand-colored by Jackson & Co. staff to match the wildly colorful tableclothes. The "Pommes Magritte" salad was an outrageous hit — a green apple cored and filled with apple, pancetta, carrots, etc. and covered with the apple top. The main course filet dish was yummy as expected but the dessert was back in theme — a chocolate cake featuring a sliding clock face.
The gala, attended by 460, brought in more than $710,000 for ballet coffers and $74,000 of that came from the live auction, another ballet ball first. Becca Cason Thrash, responsible for securing these items, handled the auction enticing Richard Fant to purchase the Bernar Venet sculpture and encouraging John Blaisdell's purchase of the London trip with lodgings in the exclusive, private Old Battersea House.
Becca not only brought in the bucks, she and John delivered a vibrant group of celebrities as eye-popping as the decor. Seated at their table were Vogue European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, Juicy Couture co-founder Gela Nash-Taylor, Spanish nobleman Joaquin Fernandez de Cordova y Hohenlohe and party maestro Bourgeois.
Adding to the special quality of the night were guests that included Phoebe and Bobby Tudor, previous Ballet Ball chairs, escorting new Houston Symphony CEO Mark Hanson and wife Christina, who were making their Houston debut, his new position announced only the day before.
Add to the party mix, Diane Lokey Farb, Pat Breen, Mark Sullivan, Dr. Lisa Santos and Bill Pugh, Jeanie Kilroy, Elizabeth and Gary Petersen, Kathryn and Jeff Smith, Cindi and Dr. Franklin Rose, Liz and Tom Glanville, Merrill and Joe Hafner, and Ginni and Richard Mithoff. Or course, taking it all in were Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch and managing director C.C. Conner.