How a Hurricane Led to a Historic Collaboration in Houston
Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic 1943 musical Oklahoma!, now celebrating its 75th anniversary, brought a bounty of firsts: Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration, Agnes de Mille's first dream ballet, the first time that a Broadway choreographer got a credit as a choreographer.
The collaboration came out of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. TUTS's new artistic director Dan Knechtges, a veteran Broadway choreographer, was just starting the job in August 2017 when the hurricane hit. Suddenly, he found himself thrust into meetings with the local chiefs of Houston's arts organizations as they scrambled to rescue their seasons due to the massive flooding in the Theater District. TUTS's home at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts was one of the few theaters that escaped the flood waters.
"Dan burst into the room like a breath of fresh air with his 'let's put on a show' attitude," says Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch.
Knechtges remembers the day somewhat differently: "It was my second day on the job and I am a room with all of Houston's arts bigwigs. Most everyone had just lost their season and was in shell shock. I knew who Stanton was, and I was a fangirl." Knechtges reached out to Welch with one crazy, wild idea: collaborate on a production of Oklahoma!
Knechtges had come to TUTS with a vision of returning the organization to its roots: developing new shows rather than just presenting touring productions. He also made a promise to use 50 percent Texas talent during each season.
Choreographing a musical had always been on Welch's bucket list, and he quickly said yes. "I got my start on stage in Oliver," he boasts. He grew up backstage watching his father, Garth Welch, in the role of Zack in A Chorus Line.
Directing this production is Knechtges' longtime colleague Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Dallas Theater Center. Welch has enjoyed supporting someone else's vision for a change, a first for him since helming Houston Ballet. "It's a relief in a funny way; it took some pressure off me."
Like de Mille, Welch is in his element with the dream ballet. He's a master of adding a psychological dimension to his story ballets. "Dream ballets are a common device in ballet—consider 'Kingdom of the Shades' in La Bayadere, and The Merry Widow."
In this update, Laurey is in charge of her own life and not a victim, a very different approach than de Mille's treatment. "You can really see the updating in Stanton's partnering, especially in the way the women interact with each other, it feels so much more contemporary," says Knechtges. "I also love that it's on pointe. People are not used to seeing this level of dancing in a musical."
Welch's dream ballet is also more integrated into the action, with the dream characters appearing in other scenes, and Laurey, the actor, present during the actual ballet. "You see her facing her psyche and trying to figure things out," says Knechtges.
Stanton Welch rehearsing the dancers. Photo by Lawrence Knox
As natural as it was for Welch to be steeped in drama, he would be the first to admit that there was a learning curve. "I don't usually choreograph to words," he says. "Really, everything about this process is new. But I love to learn new things, and the dancers are soaking everything up like a sponge."
Houston Ballet principals Ian Casady and Charles Yoshiyama dance the role of "Dream Curly," while Jessica Collado and Melody Mennite take on "Dream Laurey," and soloist Christopher Coomer and demi soloist Brian Waldrep perform "Dream Jud." Fifteen additional company members are part of the ensemble.
At the end of the day, Oklahoma!'s message feels right for today's deeply divided political sphere. "At its heart, it's about coming together for the greater good and that certainly relates to the time we are living in," adds Welch.
One of the most powerful ways a city can heal is through the arts. As we move past the one-year anniversary of the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey, Houston has set a stunning example in Oklahoma! A beautiful morning indeed!
Catch Oklahoma! September 11-23 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
As you're prepping your Thanksgiving meal, why not throw in a dash of dance?
This year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is stuffed (pun intended) with performances from four stellar Broadway shows, the Radio City Rockettes and students from three New York City dance institutions.
Tune in to NBC November 28 from 9 am to noon (in all time zones), or catch the rebroadcast at 2 pm (also in all time zones). Here's what's in store:
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Last week, Variety reported that Sergei Polunin would reunite with the team behind Dancer for another documentary. "Where 'Dancer' looked at his whole life, family and influences," director Steven Cantor said, " 'Satori' will focus more squarely on his creative process as performer and, for the first time ever, choreographer." The title references a poorly received evening of work by the same name first presented by Polunin in 2017. (It recently toured to Moscow and St. Petersburg.)
I cannot be the only person wondering why we should care.
"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.