Given that Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, it’s only fitting that our ballet company is also the fourth largest in the country, with over 50 permanent ensemble dancers. As such, it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance—the company's $46.6 million downtown facility, completed in 2011—is also one of the largest in the world. After being invited to tour the center with Houston Ballet Executive Director James Nelson, I was surprised by how much goes on there—far more than just dance practice.
With students from all over the world beginning to arrive for the ballet’s summer training sessions, there was no better time to witness all the cogs in motion at the center, starting with a dormitory suite in the building for housing the traveling young dancers HB trains in modern ballet. Nelson emphasized the importance of such student programs: “We want to teach the younger dancers as much as we can early on.” From lessons in everything from intricate choreography to sports nutrition, the Houston Ballet, he says, tries to instill well-rounded values in their dancers from the youngest possible age.
Between the dorms and the dance floors, there is a total fitness center on-site, to ensure that every dancer is in prime condition before performing. This was not an endeavor taken on alone, as Methodist Hospital is part of a close partnership with the Houston Ballet to provide top-notch health care. “We have comprehensive pre-season health screenings,” Nelson explained, walking me through the process for maintaining dancers' health. “Methodist provides access to every kind of specialist that they might need after an injury, as well as nutritionists throughout the year.”
In the world of ballet, it is no secret that the pressure to be a certain size can affect dancers. With young women being told during auditions or even in childhood classes that they’re ‘too short’ or ‘too busty’ to be a ballet dancer, there is a mental hurdle in place. “We don’t weigh our dancers,” Nelson explained, pride evident in his voice. “We don’t have weight requirements for our dancers. Stanton Welch likes to see performers in all shapes and colors.” With a focus on real dancers and real passions, the Houston Ballet has been setting itself apart for years, earning the company praise from the New York Times.
“When you look at a group of dancers on stage,” Nelson continued, “everyone is asking themselves: can I relate to this experience or artist? So we answer that for them. We make sure our company represents the community we serve. We want people to relate.” It wasn’t a surprise to hear Nelson’s long list of international dancers, as we looked down from a fourth floor window to see a group of young ballerinas stretching for their class. You could see the diversity from a glance. Performers from Korea, China, Venezuela, Estonia and Israel— just to start—seemed to provide evidence of Welch’s leadership.
The Houston Ballet is also home to its own team of seamstresses and painters, who produce every single article of stage clothing in the building. “Nothing on stage has been made somewhere else,” said Nelson. “It all happens here. We have a real sense of community.”
As the tour came to an end, I reflected that in many ways, the Houston Ballet sounds like a local theater, using their own choreography, their own dancers, their own costumes and sometimes even their own music. And it all starts at the Center for Dance. "We’re proud of what we do,” Nelson told me, nodding toward the Wortham Theater Center, which is connected by sky bridge to the center. “Nothing we do is ever going to be the same anywhere else. They won’t do it like we do.”