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By Nancy Wozny
The saying goes that if a butterfly flaps its wings in New Zealand, a tornado could occur in Texas. When the butterfly in question, Amy Fote, danced up a storm as Cio-Cio San in Stanton Welch’s story ballet Madame Butterfly, the weather didn’t change, but the entire trajectory of her career did.
Steven Woodgate, a ballet master at Houston Ballet, spotted her gifts in 2004 while setting Welch’s piece on the Royal New Zealand Ballet, where Fote was guesting. Fote put her heart and soul into the role, researching every detail of the story and looking for references in her own life to connect to the betrayed bride’s dilemma. Shortly afterward she was invited to visit Houston Ballet, and before long, HB artistic director Stanton Welch offered her a first soloist position. “When that door opened for me I knew I had to walk through it,” says Fote about the decision to leave a 14-year career with the Milwaukee Ballet.
At 33, an age when many ballerinas are winding down, Fote packed all that could fit into her Audi and headed to Texas. “I had fully intended to spend my entire career at Milwaukee Ballet. I wasn’t looking for a change,” remembers Fote. “But then again I didn’t want to wonder what if I never took the risk.” Fote’s family urged her to go for it, knowing they would be seeing a lot less of her.
A native of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a small town outside of Milwaukee, Fote received her early training from the Jean Wolfmeyer School of Dance. “Jean taught me to use my eyes, and I find myself still experimenting with how I can create a character even in Stanton’s more abstract ballets.” (This December she guested as Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen in Wolfmeyer’s studio.) She continued her training at Harid Conservatory before settling into the Milwaukee Ballet School.
Fote spent nine summers dancing at Chautauqua Summer Ballet Company under Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, which also shaped her dancing. “They were great cheerleaders and lifted me up,” she says. “Patricia taught me grace even outside of the studio.” While in the corps at Milwaukee, she paid close attention to Mireille Favarel’s finely crafted dancing and enjoyed a close mentorship from Susan Clark, another principal who took Fote under her wing.
During her time at Milwaukee Ballet Fote worked with five different directors. “Basil Thompson left a mark on me,” she says. “No matter what was happening inside the company he was always so positive.” Simon Dow taught her an approach to acting that continues to inform her dancing. “He encouraged me to question why I am doing something,” says Fote, “to look for a motivation.”
Choreographer Kathyrn Posin watched Fote’s metamorphosis from an aspiring trainee to a polished principal over the course of several pieces she set on Milwaukee Ballet from 1991 to 2003. “I was struck by her grace and humility,” recalls Posin. “Each year I came back, she was moving closer to her axis, her center, both physically and technically, as if she were shedding her spare parts.” Posin cast her in many roles. “The imagination and poetry of her movements are totally useful to a choreographer,” she says. “That’s what weare looking for—a whole room full of Amys.”
With long chestnut-brown hair, sparkling azure eyes, a reed-thin physique, and a highly expressive face, Fote exudes a feline sensuality. She admits her body has been good to her; other than a mild case of scoliosis she has been relatively injury free. In her civilian life she’s an extremely private person, a quality that also manifests in her uncanny ability to reveal and conceal in her dancing. Downtime is often spent dabbling in the domestic world of cooking and decorating. “I bring that sense of control of the details to my everyday life,” admits Fote. “I want things around me to be beautiful.” At times, she leans towards perfectionism. “I tend to overanalyze things and think too much,” she says. “I also approach technique with a bit more caution and am not as reckless as I used to be. Luckily, I give that up completely when I am onstage.”
Life in a company nearly twice the size of the Milwaukee Ballet proved shocking at first. “The pace here is crazy, good crazy though,” she admits while in the midst of rehearsing for Welch’s premiere The Four Seasons, and tour preparations. She went from a 31- to a 44-week contract with much more performance time and a larger repertoire. Fote had barely unpacked when Reid Anderson (director of the Stuttgart Ballet) cast her as Titania in John Cranko’s Onegin. “After the first run-through everyone in the studio applauded,” remembers Fote. “I felt like I had arrived.”
Her first two years included principal roles in Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, Onegin, Coppélia, and mostly recently the comic role of Hanna in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. For Welch, the promotion to principal after the 2006 Jubilee was always in the cards. For Fote it came as a complete surprise. “I feel more pressure for sure; I have to bring my A-game all the time.”
It’s precisely her full-time full-on style that Welch admires. “Amy is always in character,” he says. Welch’s way of working is intimately tied to the people in front of him. “We have one of the best groups of actor/dancers in the country and Amy is part of the reason why,” he says. Welch considers Fote to be one of his top muses. “Amy is a complete artist,” he says. “She exudes a kind of extreme sensuality, a rare mix of steeliness and fragility. It’s a powerful and odd combination.” Fote’s forte in acting fits in perfectly with the direction that Welch is taking with three new story ballets on the slate for this season and a new full-length from scratch in the 2008-2009 season.
Welch most recently choreographed the “Summer” section of The Four Seasons on Fote. Dancing the part of a neglected young married woman who ventures away from the nest to have an affair, Fote brings a level of authenticity and ambiguity to the role. Welch’s elusive brand of narrative is well-matched with Fote’s ability to mine the full dimension of a character. She’s not a black-and-white dancer, but enjoys dwelling in in-between places that ask viewers to meet her halfway.
In March, Welch cast her as his Cinderella, a character who possesses a decidedly feminist bent. “This Cinderella is not a victim; Amy’s strong feminine presence is perfect for the role,” says Welch. “Plus, she showed a flair for comedy in Robbins’ The Concert.” Fote is a bit concerned about the tomboy element of Welch’s tough girl interpretation but is game with the new spin on an old story. “That’s not me, I don’t even own a pair of tennis shoes,” she says. “But I think Stanton’s new take on the story is a great message for young women.”
Welch has Fote in mind for a comic part in his new piece set to Gershwin to premiere next month. Later on this season, Fote will take on a role in Welch’s antiwar ballet A Doll’s House, set to István Márta’s “A Doll’s House Story” for percussion ensemble.
Although she was exposed to a good deal of contemporary work at Milwaukee Ballet, Fote has had to prove herself in story-less works at Houston Ballet as well. This past September she found herself completely out of her comfort zone in William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. “I can find my funk when I need to,” says Fote. “I’m not one of those dancers who can’t dance at a party.” But she admits it took her a while to own the in-your-face vibe of the piece.
Fote approaches each role like a slow fire. She takes her time gathering information, shaping her own body into the choreography, and finding her fit with the emotional landscape. “When I first learn something, it’s not pretty,” she admits. “I need to find the transitions in my own body.” A stickler for detail, Fote continually mines a role for deeper connections. Principal Ian Casady partnered Fote in the Forsythe, Butterfly, and The Four Seasons. “She’s so totally unafraid and daring onstage that it makes it easy for me to dive into my character,” says Casady. “I end up feeling freer to push farther as well.”
Sometimes a role requires a different kind of listening that’s more about backing off than pushing further. “I am working on being more quiet in my dancing,” Fote says. Performing the role of the lone woman amidst seven men in Welch’s Clear (originally created for American Ballet Theatre in 2001) gave her ample opportunity to practice turning down the volume. The dance ends in a slow unwinding pas de deux that straddles the edge of sadness towards a healing note. In the ballet’s final lift Fote reaches skyward, making herself a beacon of hope or a tower of sorrow. She’s not afraid of leaving the audience in a state of wonder and leaving some of the story left untold. “I want to say more with less,” she says. “I want the audience to lean in a little.”
Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and somatics in Houston, and is a facilitator for the Houston Ballet Dance Talks.