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.

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