Houston Ballet Strong: How the Company Persevered to Present Its 2017–18 Season After Hurricane Harvey
When Hurricane Harvey unleashed its rainy path of destruction on the downtown Theater District in Houston in August, Houston Ballet staff, dancers and fans knew it would not be business as usual this season. Over 40 inches of rain drenched Houston, damaging nearly one hundred thousand homes. In all, it caused an estimated $200 billion of damage in Texas. Some of that damage hit Houston Ballet's Center for Dance when the waters jumped the building's four-foot floodgates, leaving two to three inches of water in the lobby and first-floor studios.
Some of Houston Ballet's studios flooded during the hurricane. Photo courtesy Houston Ballet
That minor flooding was taken care of within weeks, and the company was back in its home soon after. The opening of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's epic drama Mayerling was swiftly moved from Wortham Center, the company's theatrical home that also sustained flooding, to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The company gave four (instead of six) triumphant performances one month after the storm.
Reality set in when news broke that the damage to the Wortham Center turned out to be much worse than first anticipated. The artistic and administrative team found out that the floodwaters had gone all the way up to the basement ceiling. Costumes from some 50 ballets, which accounts for 60 percent of the repertoire, were destroyed. The theater would remain closed until September 2018, and the company would need to find other venues for the remaining season.
But as artistic director Stanton Welch made clear to the audience at the company's annual Jubilee of Dance on November 15, hurricanes shouldn't mess with ballet dancers. The company would get through this, and be stronger for it.
Figuring out where to have the rest of the season wasn't easy, as many arts organizations were scrambling for theater spaces. Welch had to think way out of the Wortham box. The Nutcracker took place in two locations: in the nearby suburb of Sugar Land, giving the marketing team some fun opportunities to film the company's Sugar Plum (portrayed by first soloist Allison Miller) returning to her hometown; and at the Hobby Center for one post-Christmas week.
The remaining previously announced programs have shifted to Jones Hall and George R. Brown Convention Center's Resilience Theater (the makeshift theater built by Houston Grand Opera), as well as the Hobby Center. In June, the company will present Play, a triple bill of ballets by Welch completely reimagined for the unique space of George R. Brown's Assembly Hall.
A reduced performance schedule that affected the entire season (Nutcracker alone went from 35 performances to 28) and a drop in sales from new and returning single-ticket buyers resulted in significant losses in ticket-sales–related revenue, which will likely exceed $3 million for the year. Overall, Harvey has caused the largest financial challenge the company has ever faced, now estimated at $12.1 million over the next three years, due to expenses like lost revenue, studio repairs and costume losses.
Welch and his team have kept a chin-up attitude. He's immensely proud that none of the dancers have lost work due to Harvey. Upcoming tours to Jacob's Pillow in August and Dubai in October have lifted spirits. "When we get to the Pillow we will be on the other side of the tunnel," says Welch, "and when we return from Dubai in October we will be ready to move back into our treasured home. We will have our entire 2018–19 season back on our beautiful Wortham stage."
The Hometown Tour rolls on as the company returns to the Hobby Center for Don Quixote, April 13–15, moves to Assembly Hall for Play, June 8–10, and heads back to its original home, Jones Hall, for Swan Lake, June 23–July 1. Houston Ballet finishes the season Aug. 15–18 at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, making its first visit since 1979.