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Known for her understated elegance, daredevil comfort in the airspace, and nuanced acting in classic story ballets, Houston Ballet principal Barbara Bears takes her final bow this month during the annual Jubilee. She will be honored with a film montage culled from her shining stage moments.
Bears trained with Victoria Leigh and James Franklin in Deerfield Beach near her hometown of Fort Lauderdale, FL. She came to Houston as a teenager in 1987. After one year in the Houston Ballet Academy (now Ben Stevenson Academy), she joined the company, rising to principal in 1995. With a career spanning two decades and two directors, Ben Stevenson and Stanton Welch, Bears witnessed firsthand the growth of the company. “I had the best of both eras in that I was there when Ben transformed this company and watched Stanton take us even further,” she says. Bears retired for a year and half after the birth of her son, Ethan, now 7. But Welch convinced Bears to return after he took the helm in 2003. About her impending retirement she says, “I knew it was the right time to retire because it feels completely different than the first time.”
During her tenure Bears worked closely with Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Christopher Bruce, and Jirí Kylián. Former principal Phillip Broomhead partnered Bears in MacMillan’s Manon and Gloria. “She’s such a trusting partner, which is what made dancing with her so magical,” says Broomhead, now a ballet master at HB. “Her freshness and sense of detail are remarkable. It was always as if she was dancing any ballet for the first time, yet she was so methodical about what she was doing.”
Welch will miss his muse. “Barbara is one of Houston’s great ballerinas—she’s part of what made this company,” he says. “She’s always been a favorite of audiences and choreographers.” Welch selected Fokine’s Dying Swan as one of Bears’ swan songs. “It’s such an iconic ballerina role and a lovely way to finish her career,” he says. Bears will also perform a solo from Welch’s Tutu, in which a dancer reflects back on her life. “It will be a revealing personal journey for Barb,” says Welch.
Bears, 38, plans to teach, coach, and enjoy time with her family. “I will miss aspects of this life,” she admits. “I am not sure I will do anything else as well or love something so much. But I have reached a point where I accomplished everything I had set out to do. I am ready to pass on the torch.” —Nancy Wozny
Patrick Swayze (1952–2009)
After publicly fighting pancreatic cancer with a tenacity that only a dancer could muster, Patrick Swayze died in September. An actor, singer, and avid horseman, Swayze first trained in ballet, skating, and gymnastics. He began dancing in Houston under his mother, Patsy Swayze, a choreographer and director of the Houston Jazz Ballet Company. After two years of college via an athletic scholarship, he left to dance professionally. One of his first jobs was as Prince Charming in Disney on Parade—a role tailored to his good looks and Apollonian physique.
In the mid-’70s Swayze ventured to New York with his teenage sweetheart (later wife) Lisa Niemi, also a dancer. They studied at the Joffrey Ballet School and Harkness Ballet. Before a knee injury sidelined him, Swayze danced with the Eliot Feld Ballet.
In 1975 Swayze made his Broadway musical debut in Goodtime Charley. Later he performed in West Side Story and as a replacement Danny Zuko in the original run of Grease. It was that bad boy/leading man role that caught Hollywood’s eye.
The 1979 film Skatetown, U.S.A. capitalized on his amazing athletic prowess. He continued to gain supporting roles in film and television throughout the early 1980s, including a role in Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders. The 1985 mini-series North and South introduced TV audiences to his energetic sex appeal.
In 1987 Swayze’s place in dance-movie history was solidified with the sleeper hit of the summer, Dirty Dancing. He starred as Johnny Castle, a dance instructor from a working-class background struggling to prove his worth among resort-going elites. His style was a combination of tenderness and toughness. His hip-focused, strong but sultry moves had rarely been seen onscreen. The film sparked a dance phenomenon that had audiences attempting to mambo, practicing lifts in lakes, and quoting Johnny Castle one-liners for years to come.
Swayze went on to star in numerous movies, including Ghost, Road House, and Point Break, and was nominated for three Golden Globe awards. He returned to musical theater in 2003 as Billy Flynn in Chicago and made his West End debut in 2006 as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. In 2003 he starred in the film One Last Dance, a movie written by, directed by, and co-starring his wife. It was based in part on their joint experiences as dancers in New York. In it, Swayze’s skill as a giving, caring partner is highlighted.
Swayze continued to act until shortly before his death. His latest project was The Beast, a dramatic series for A&E. —Khara Hanlon
Francis Mason (1921–2009)
Anyone who has heard Francis Mason rhapsodize about seeing Maria Tallchief in Balanchine’s Firebird (1949) understands why he devoted his adult life to dance. He was smitten—with Tallchief, with ballet, with dance.
A fixture at ballet and Martha Graham concerts in NYC for decades, Mason was always the gentleman, expressing curiosity and dignity about all things dance. While a diplomat serving in England in the ’60s, he helped to persuade the U.S. government to export Balanchine and Graham to England, which in turn made both of them more celebrated artists at home.
In 1954 he collaborated with Balanchine on Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, which has been reissued under various titles. In 1991 he published I Remember Balanchine, an anthology of interviews with many artists, including Tamara Geva, Edward Villella, Arthur Mitchell, Violette Verdy, and Suki Schorr. For decades he produced weekly updates on the dance world for WQXR-FM radio. He edited the indispensable journal Ballet Review, founded by Arlene Croce, from 1980 until his death.
He served on the board of the Graham company, as chair from 1974 to 1976 and again from 2000 to 2007, when he guided the company through a tumultuous period of lawsuits and reorganization.
Mason was born in Jacksonville, FL, and graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. While in the Navy, he participated in D-Day. A lover of all of the arts, in 1948 he was taken (or rather dragged, as he has said) by a friend to the premiere of Balanchine’s Orpheus, and thus began his devotion to dance. He counted Martha Graham and George Balanchine among his lifelong friends, and his assistance to their respective companies continued long after their deaths. —Wendy Perron
Broadway choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall married Scott Landis, a producer of her 2006 revival of The Pajama Game, in NYC in October.
Photo of Barbara Bears and Ian Casady by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet