"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
Before Hurricane Harvey struck on August 25, 2017, Houston Ballet dancers were even more excited than usual for their season opener: The North American premiere of Sir Kenneth MacMillian's Mayerling. It's a dark, dramatic tale of intrigue set in the 19th Century Viennese court, and while preparing for it, the weather was the last thing on the dancers' minds.
"I think we as dancers become slightly tunnel-visioned to the world around us and attention is all focused on the opening night," says principal dancer Jessica Collado. "That made the blow of Hurricane Harvey even more of a surprise and shock. Having not only our studios flood, but also our Wortham Theater, was like having the floor ripped right out from underneath you."
Collado's floor metaphor was tragically literal. At Houston Ballet's Center for Dance, it was a slowly-unfolding nightmare. Andrew Nielsen, Houston Ballet's production director, assessed the damage a few days after the storm. "We had only four inches of water on our main floor, but our basement took on water from floor to ceiling," he says. When his team pulled up the visibly soggy floor in the lower studio and black box theater, it revealed six inches of water trapped underneath.
Six inches of water trapped under the floors at Houston Ballet's Center for Dance.
The flooding in the Wortham was also significantly worse than expected. The staff had moved 50 ballets worth of costumes above the three-foot floodline set by a previous storm, but the Wortham took on an unprecedented 15 feet of water, leaving water on the stage level and closing the building for an entire year.
"When we first spoke with Houston Ballet about the damage they had suffered, we knew it was significant," says Harlequin's executive vice president Pat Basileo. "But each time we heard from them the news just kept getting worse. It was unlike any situation we had ever encountered."
The water had receded, but the dread was just setting in. Collado, who was cast in the role of Empress Elisabeth in Mayerling, didn't even know if there would be a premiere. "Your first reaction is to check that all loved ones and friends are safe," she says. "Then the biggest worry was, have we completely lost the opportunity to perform this iconic ballet?"
A Life Raft
The company soon secured a temporary performance venue for Mayerling at Houston's Hobby Center. But while the stage was sizeable enough for the production, it wasn't sprung. Houston Ballet needed a portable floor ASAP, and Nielsen knew right away to call Larry Sullivan, Harlequin's contracts director who manages manufacturing out of a North Texas facility.
Within two weeks, Sullivan and his team had $50,000 worth of Harlequin Liberty LatchLoc portable flooring built and delivered to the Hobby Center before Mayerling's September 22 opening, allowing the show to indeed go on—and providing the company with a portable solution should they face another hurricane. And just a few months later, Harlequin created specialty Harlequin Liberty LatchLoc panels—customized to bear the weight of the show's heavy scenery—for Houston Ballet's Nutcracker performances at the Smart Financial Center in Sugar Land, Texas.
Houston Ballet in Mayerling
Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet
But just as important as securing floors for upcoming performances was getting new permanent flooring for the company's Center for Dance, which is used for community events as well as rehearsals. Sullivan and his team built new floors using drawings and dimensions from when the floor was first installed by Harlequin seven years prior, getting the two damaged studios up in running with Harlequin WoodSpring sprung floors and Harlequin Studio marley floors just over a month after Harvey hit, even after waiting until the moisture and humidity levels in the rooms were acceptable for installation.
"They knew we were in a really bad spot," says Nielsen. "They were like, let's drop everything and put Andrew at the front of the line. A lot of companies would gouge in a time like that. What they were able to do for us was incredible."
Though Harlequin's efforts undoubtedly went above and beyond, it was par for the course for the flooring company, who sees their customers as their friends and takes a dancers-first approach to their work. "We take pride in knowing that we could assist in a small way a community that suffered such massive devastation," says Basileo.
For the dancers of Houston Ballet, Harlequin's assistance will have lasting affects. "After all that tragedy, it meant so much to the dancers, the organization, and the community to be able to rally and carry on with our performances," says Collado.