Face To Face: Stanton Welch

It’s possible that Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch knows more about the French Revolution than any choreographer around. While staging Marie, his homage to France’s most frivolous queen, Marie Antoinette, Welch reveled in the process of creating an original ballet that abstractly portrays the child princess’ much gossiped about life. With a cast of more than 50 historically accurate characters and 150 costumes, Marie holds the honor of being one of HB’s most lavish productions.    

Next up this June, Welch will present his 2006 Swan Lake, in which HB will use the “Swan” inspired by John William Waterhouse’s most famous painting, The Lady of Shalott. Once Welch set his eyes on the English pre-Raphaelite painter’s tragic maiden sleeping in a boat by a lake, he knew he had found his Odette.

As the older of two sons born to  famous Australian ballet dancers Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones, Welch inherited the talent necessary to successfully defy the odds during the lightning-fast growth of his career. He took his first class at age 17, created his first ballet, The Three of Us, at 21 and at 33, took over the fourth largest ballet company in America. Here the risk-taking Welch, who is also head of the Ben Stevenson Academy, shares thoughts on his latest works and what makes an ideal teacher.   

Dance Teacher: This February, you unveiled your evening-length opus Marie. What did your creative process entail for this piece? Stanton Welch: The project was limitless in that I was starting from complete scratch; there was no music or previous opera or ballet. Every single choice was up to me, which was both daunting and exciting. In my research, I was amazed by the fact that almost everything we know about Marie Antoinette came from the early version of tabloids. I was inspired by the myth, the hype and history itself in telling her story. At the end of setting the work, I was so proud of the way the dancers took to every aspect of the ballet. They were so involved and committed to the piece right from the start, and that really shines through; it truly feels like a play.

DT: In June, Houston audiences will get a second look at your version of Swan Lake. What is your mark on this great ballet?
SW: It’s set in the classical idiom, but I played with the scenario. The story follows a more contemporary slant, with more complex dramas. I’ve updated it a bit; the characters are developed, with more three-dimensional personalities. As for our second run, ballets are like wine, they grow better with time. It will be nice to see Swan Lake as a toddler instead of a newborn. And of course, many new dancers will get a chance at the roles.

DT: Is there one teacher who shaped your career as a dancer?
SW: Just one? There have been many. The base of my technique comes from my parents, but I would say Johnny Eliason, a Denmark-based guest teacher, and Wang Jia-hong of the Hong Kong Ballet shaped the dancer I became. I started late, so I was behind. Both of them worked with me privately and gave me what I needed to catch up.

DT: What qualities do you feel make a good teacher?
SW: Well, there is this silly assumption that when you finish your dance career you can just teach. In reality, teaching is a highly refined skill, and it’s harder to find a good teacher than a good principal. I look for teachers who are good with particular age groups. Some of our faculty members are perfect for the little ones, while others are best at polishing professionals. I also look for strong, very disciplined leaders. They have to love what they do and not be looking for the next step; teaching has to be their whole job. DT

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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