On the Rise

March 22, 2009

Blending feminine strength with crisp clarity in her “Dark Angel” debut, Katharine Precourt held Serenade’s chalice-shaped arabesque until the audience almost gasped. In one transformative moment last year, the Houston Ballet demi-soloist captured the purity and elegance of Balanchine’s haunting choreography. By the end of the performance, a talented dancer had gone from promising corps member to the audience’s newest discovery.


Lately Precourt, 23, who spent three years in the corps before being promoted last season, has been dancing leads in one ballet after another. Her long, tapering limbs—she’s 5′ 8″—and dark, commanding beauty make her a natural fit in an unusual range of pieces. After injuries caused last-minute cast shake-ups, Precourt ended up in the first casts of Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, and Kylián’s Petite Mort. “She needed to step up to the plate, and she did with great success,” says Houston Ballet’s artistic director, Stanton Welch.


Born in San Diego, Precourt began her training at the San Diego School of Ballet. After her teacher encouraged her to audition for children’s roles at San Francisco Ballet, she was cast as Clara in SFB’s Nutcracker in 1996. It proved a turning point. “I knew early that dance would always be part of my life, but something deeper happened for me dancing on that stage,” she remembers. “I soaked up the vibe of the real dance world and I wanted to be part of it. From that moment on, I fell in love with performing.”


Summer intensives at San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre helped her improve, but it was at Houston Ballet’s summer program where she found her home. Looking back, she says its combination of nurture and challenge—pushing with a purpose—proved the right fit for her. When she was offered a full merit scholarship to attend Houston Ballet’s school, the Ben Stevenson Academy, she moved from San Diego and completed her training there. She spent one year in Houston Ballet II and another as a company apprentice before joining the corps in 2004.


Though she felt she had opportunities in the corps, Precourt has been thrilled by the new roles that she’s getting as a demi-soloist. Charging through Forsythe’s elongated lines fearlessly when she stepped into In the middle, Precourt looked utterly at home in his off-kilter universe. She handled the push, pull and tug of the terrain with an aggressive air and spot-on musicality. Turning her long limbs into blades, Precourt sliced through the space with all the tough-girl fierceness the piece demands. “The steps will tell you what they are about; you just have to do it,” she says. “The meaning is in the movement.”


Her partner, principal Simon Ball, found her willingness to throw herself into the piece’s unstable angles, all with minimal rehearsal, impressive. “This is such an unforgiving piece. I was amazed at how far she traveled as the run continued,” remembers Ball. “I am not at all surprised by her ascent in the company. She’s such a generous dancer, and it’s been so much fun to watch her grow.”


Precourt also earned the confidence of Stanton Welch. “She is a unique sort of artist who draws people’s attention. There’s no limitation with her; she can move at any speed,” says Welch. “She’s always been a great dancer, but last season, she bloomed from a talented girl into an artist.”


This season Precourt has enjoyed a string of high-profile roles, including one in Welch’s new Marie, based on the glittery and tragic life of Marie Antoinette. As Maria Anna, Marie Antoinette’s sister, Precourt found herself smack dab in the middle of the French Revolution in a role created on her by Welch. He gave each dancer who had a featured part a notebook of historical information on their character that they were asked to study. In Precourt’s case, she needed to imagine what it might feel like to see your sister torn from home, family and country. “It was a huge learning process for me to take on a historical figure from the 18th century,” she says, “and much more about acting.”


Precourt misses the miles of beach she was used to relaxing on growing up in Southern California. She spends her down time reading, and indulging in her favorite off-hours habit, shopping. Still, her heart lies with dance. “I find myself doing mostly dance-related things when I am off, like watching videos and going over my notes on whatever I am learning,” says Precourt, who keeps detailed notes on each ballet she is rehearsing. “I learn from performance what I need to focus on in my training.”


Though Precourt says she feels excited by all her new roles, there are many more she hopes to perform. One in particular may happen soon: the Black Swan in Welch’s Pre-Raphaelite version of Swan Lake, which will be staged this season. “I would love doing either role, black or white,” says Precourt. “Isn’t it every ballerina’s dream to dance Swan Lake?” In Precourt’s case, it’s a safe bet that it’s the audience’s dream too.


Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston, TX.


Photo: Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet