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By Nancy Wozny
Houston Ballet’s Melody Mennite finds the meaning in the movement.
Passionate and invested: Ian Casady and Mennite in Marie, a role that Stanton Welch made on her. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB.
Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite claims the stage in Garrett Smith’s new Return with such authority it’s hard to notice anything else. Propelled by John Adams’ driving score, Mennite combines a dynamic quality with a near reckless musicality, keeping us at the edge of our seats.
Mennite completely inhabits the world of any ballet that she’s in. No matter what the ballet is about, we simply follow her and all will be revealed. “She can tell any story you give her,” says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director. “She draws us in so that the audience feels as if they are in the dance rather than just watching it.”
With a face capable of a multitude of expressions, the petite ballerina has exceptional emotional dexterity. “Melody has that special undefinable quality, that ‘it’ factor,” muses Welch. “She can make something out of nothing.” With all the technical chops at her disposal, it’s her ability to portray a character that stands out. “She’s such a good actor, human and natural, that’s why I so enjoy creating on her,” says Welch. “You simply can’t ignore her when she is onstage.”
Welch and Mennite have been intertwined in a choreographer/dancer tango for a decade now. “It’s rare to have that kind of connection,” she says. “I just get what he is saying, and I love his ideas. I can read his mind. With that level of trust, I can really throw myself at the work.”
Welch has created a slew of roles on her in ballets like Falling, The Four Seasons, Carmina Burana, The Core, Brigade, and Velocity, a ballet where she plays the impresario of the proceedings, casting the spell that launches Welch’s ferocious ballet blanc. “When I set Velocity on the company, I changed it, making Melody’s character a central figure,” says Welch, who originally made the piece on The Australian Ballet. “Michael Torke’s music is so tricky, yet she was able to draw out such detail.”
Above: "Melody brings the company to tears in every Marie rehearsal." —Connor Walsh. Photo by Bruce Bennett, Courtesy HB.
To call Mennite a musical dancer is an understatement. She’s a musician; she plays the guitar, the ukelele, and has moonlighted as a local singer-songwriter. Welch enjoys watching what Mennite mines in any piece of music. “Her phasing is such an adventure. It’s almost as if she can slow time down. Melody hears the beginning, middle, and end of a note, so she can really play with it. She can tease the music without ever leaving it. She’s never late or early.”
Marie, Welch’s meditation on the tumultuous life of Marie Antoinette (touring Canada in 2014), proved a turning point in her career. “I’m completely invested in that role,” she says. “Every single moment in the studio creating it was charged with passion.”
“Together Stanton and Melody took a complicated story of the French Revolution and created a completely human story,” says her frequent partner, Connor Walsh. “When Melody dances the role, she brings the entire staff and company to tears nearly every rehearsal.”
The creation of Marie coincided with the most difficult time in her personal life, the breakup with her then-husband, former principal Randy Herrera. The separation left her a single mother with all the responsibility of a principal in the midst of the role of her career. “It was dramatic and traumatic,” she recalls, holding back tears. “My family was far away, so Stanton and the company became my family.”
Growing up in Santa Cruz, she received her early training at Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre under Robert Kelley and Diane Cypher, who were also the studio’s in-house choreographers. After three summer intensives at Houston Ballet Academy, she spent part of the next summer with Suzanne Farrell in Washington, DC. She was there when the principal of Houston’s academy, Clara Cravey, called her mother, asking “Where’s Melody?” It was the phone call that changed her future. Cravey invited Mennite to come spend the year with the company, beginning her full-time life at Houston Ballet. She joined the company at 17 in 2001, and was promoted to principal in 2008, the year after she graced Dance Magazine’s cover as a “25 to Watch.” At first, she had a hard time adjusting, but the city has grown on her, especially since her 9-year-old son, Isaac, is a native Texan.
As at home as she now is in Houston, she does like to get out of the city from time to time, guesting with various artists. Mennite connected to Whim W’Him founder Olivier Wevers through her childhood friend and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal, Lucien Postlewaite. She’s danced with Wevers’ company for four years, appearing in two of his works and in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s stirring Cylindrical Shadows. In Wevers’ Monster, she alternates between total surrender and determined aggression. She cuts close to the bone in Wevers’ riveting pas de deux, recently performed with Postlewaite at the Joyce Theater as part of Ballet v6.0.
“She’s raw and real, searching deep to find the true intention of a step,” says Wevers. “She can do anything, totally open and able to stretch to any point.”
Ochoa found Mennite’s creative spirit intoxicating. “Melody doesn’t wait for a choreographer to finish an entire piece to start interpreting the material you give her,” says Ochoa. “This is gold for a choreographer. You feel that she embodies every movement as if there would be a story to tell. She is a storyteller even in the most abstract ballets.”
Above: Reckless musicality: in Garrett Smith's Return. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB.
Part of her charm is her ability to become anyone. Transforming into a mischievous child in Christopher Bruce’s Hush, Mennite turned up the punk spunk, flitting about to Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma’s songs. This season gives Mennite a welcome chance to revisit several roles, including Welch’s Swan Lake, Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, and Kylián’s Petite Mort, a pivotal work in her repertoire. “It feels like part of my body,” she says. “I peeked out from those dresses and thought, I’m not just performing, I’m in it. It was surreal.”
She will be dancing in all three of Welch’s pieces for the celebration of his decade at the Houston Ballet helm next March. “It’s so fun to return to a role; I can deepen my approach, because I’m a more mature dancer,” she says. New things are coming up on her dance plate, including David Bintley’s Aladdin. “I don’t know much about the ballet, but I think I could totally rock a Jasmine outfit,” she jokes.
At 30, Mennite’s personal life has found stable footing as well. In October, she married Rick Walsh, principal Joseph Walsh’s brother, becoming the newest member of what insiders call the “Walsh dynasty,” which includes Joseph and Connor (not related).
Giselle tops her list of ballets she has yet to dance. “I even practice my mad scene—and it’s good.” Aside from the Giselle itch, Mennite feels grounded in her career and life. “I’m living the big picture,” she says. “I feel in a very full place.”
Nancy Wozny writes about the arts from Houston.