The halfway point: Houston performing artists experience the joys of mid-career careers
When Houston Ballet first soloist Kelly Myernick dons her harem pants and takes the stage as Gamzatti, the mysterious murderess of La Bayadere through March 3, she will completely own the stage, with a combination of her dazzling technical skills and ability to fully plumb the role for its complexity.
"What I love about Gamzatti is that, unlike so many classical female characters, she is not waifish or fragile,” Myernick told me in a 2012 Pointe Magazine interview. “She is commanding, sensual and proud."
It's not a role for a 17-year old, which is the age most ballet dancers start their professional careers.
Mid-career is about honing your chops, hanging in there and moving past mediocrity to mastery.
As a middle-aged middle child in mid-career, I'm slightly obsessed with life in the half zone. The life span of an artist doesn't always travel the usual trajectory. Just mention the word "emerging" and listen to artists groan. It's the most overused word in the arts lexicon, mostly because of what happens after the emerging part, which is submerging mostly. Few hold out long enough to get to the middle.
Mid-career can be humbling place. There can be good years when you get your coveted residencies, roles and grants, and years when rejection is the name of the game. Mid-career is about honing your chops, hanging in there and moving past mediocrity to mastery.
That's why I wanted to visit with Myernick, Philip Lehl and Karen Stokes, three Houston artists living life at the top of their mid-game.
Myernick dances up a storm with killer snakes
In La Bayadere, Myernick knocks off the "other" girl with a poisonous snake with such finesse. You really wouldn't want a youngster doing that. You can also find a more tribal Myernick in Stanton Welch's The Rite of Spring, March 7-17.
Because ballet dancers have short professional careers that begin during the teen years, a ballet dancer reaches mid-career at an age when other artists are just finding their voice. As one of a handful of dancers over 30 in the company, Myernick feels the full gravitas of life at the center.
"The conflict is that I enjoy rehearsing less and less, but I enjoy performing more than ever," Myernick says.
"The universal truth about this career is that just as you find confidence in your artistry, begin to enjoy your individuality, and have a few revelatory moments about technique, your body can start to let you down," says Myernick. "The time when all of these elements come together can be so fleeting."
Yet, the ballerina is moving into her strengths with confidence. "Part of maturity is recognizing your best attributes and enjoying them," she says. "True enjoyment is so palpable to an audience, not in the expression on someone's face, but the way that dancer indulges in a movement or a phrase of music."
Time is short, so these days the "what" matters more. "During The Nutcracker, I looked at myself in the Lead Flower costume with that goofy antennae headband and I thought, 'Well, it's official. I'm too old to wear this outfit,' " quips the ballerina. "I know very few dancers who will be satisfied playing 'Happy Villager #9' their whole career."
Recently married, Myernick ponders a family and her next career. "The schedule and the discipline require a great deal of generosity from your family. The conflict is that I enjoy rehearsing less and less, but I enjoy performing more than ever. I'm really proud of this art form and I need to share it while I can."
Lehl can play two guys in one play
Lehl is one of Houston's most recognizable actors. For the past decade, he's worked non-stop at such theaters as the Alley Theatre, Stages Repertory Theatre, Classical Theatre, Horse Head and Stark Naked, the company he founded with his wife, Kim Tobin.
Mid-career holds a sweet spot for the Juilliard School grad. He just finished rockin' the Alley in the dual roles of Karl and Steve in Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. During the run, Stark Naked won a Houston Press' Mastermind Award.
Friday, the troupe opens Yasmina Reza's biting comedy God of Carnage in Studio 101, the space they call home. Then its off to Classical Theater for Shylock The Jew of Venice, adapted from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, where he plays,"Venice", meaning every character other than Shylock. Lehl wraps up Stark Naked's season playing Macbeth, June 6-22.
"Now, I'm able to take risks because I know that if I crash and burn, I'll probably be forgiven by the Houston community," says Lehl.
According to Lehl, the biggest perk of mid-career is not having to audition. "As a young actor, I worried a lot about not only where the next job was coming from, but that any work I did be absolutely perfect, so that I would get hired back. The result, often, was work that was not risky at all," he says. "Now, I'm able to take risks because I know that if I crash and burn, I'll probably be forgiven by the Houston community."
Lehl has discovered a love for directing and teaching in the last decade. "I really didn't see that coming," he explains. "But as I've matured as an artist, I've found that I've developed some strong ideas about what's good in my own work, and I want to test that, and share it with others."
The actor has also made his peace with what's not going to happen. "Ah, Hamlet. I've aged out of some great roles. But I've had amazing casting in my life so far and would be a fool to pine for some of those roles I've missed out on. I started off in New York and thought for a long time that my destiny was there, and that if things went well, I might appear regularly in new plays and musicals there, and maybe even do some TV and movies.
"But, the fact is, I've done all of that right here in Houston."
Stokes embraces the big questions
Stokes is head of dance at the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance and Karen Stokes Dance, her small but spunky company. She's fine with the fact that she's probably not going to dance with Paul Taylor Dance Company, her dream troupe as a young dancer. Like Lehl, she also just won a MasterMind award, and enjoyed a banner season last year with her company.
She jokes that mid career has its perks. "I have a house, a husband, a Prius and the ability to shop at Whole Foods for organic veggies."
Stokes jokes that mid-career has its perks. "I have a house, a husband, a Prius and the ability to shop at Whole Foods for organic veggies."
These days, she finds that by focusing on the integrity of her work, it's possible to find great satisfaction. "Happiness does not rely on attaining a future goal," muses Stokes. "As such, my goals are not about getting my work to Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center."
Instead, she focuses on key questions: What is this work about? Can I make movement do this? Does this structure work?
The choreographer has found comfort in the great unknowns of middle age. "Early on, I felt it was important to know what I was doing, where I was going. This gave me a sense of direction and a sense of accomplishment. Now, I'm more comfortable with the fact that I’m not sure where I’m going and I don’t really know that much. What is knowing anyway, other than an obstacle to growth?"
Stokes reminds me that she still has a lot left to do as a dance maker, an educator and a wildly curious person. "I still have half of my career to go. That’s a lot of possibility to conquer. What am I learning? Am I being generous and kind? How can I be a more compassionate teacher, choreographer, leader? Am I being flexible in body and mind? Am I taking new risks, new challenges?"
Watch Houston Ballet first soloist Kelly Myernick fly through the air