Houston Ballet sets the classics aside to two-step into the heart of Texas.

11th March 2004





HOUSTON, March 10 -- ''Tales of Texas,'' a three-act ballet on Texas themes by Stanton Welch that opens on Thursday at the Houston Ballet, is a first, showing a company more relaxed now about regional pride than when it was founded 35 years ago.

When the founding trustees, many of them sophisticated balletomanes brought up on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, established a ballet school in 1955 and a professional company in 1969, they envisaged a company of national rank. In naming the British choreographer Ben Stevenson as artistic director in 1976, they found the right man to make that happen.

During his 27-year tenure, Mr. Stevenson sealed the company's international reputation with many tours abroad (including to China), provided Houston with the 19th-century classics, turned young recruits like the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta into superstars and trained scores of homegrown dancers.

As Mr. Stevenson made clear before he was succeeded as artistic director in July by the choreographer Stanton Welch, the Houston Ballet had room for American themes and pop music as well as ''The Sleeping Beauty'' and ''Swan Lake.'' With ''Tales of Texas,'' however, the ballet hits much closer to home than ever before.

While it would seem logical for a Texas choreographer to tackle the project, Mr. Welch, 34, is a native of Melbourne, Australia. Formerly the resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet, he has been much in demand in recent years, creating works for American Ballet Theater, the San Francisco Ballet and the Houston Ballet, as well as abroad.

In a state where outsiders, particularly those commenting about Texas, are often viewed with suspicion, Mr. Welch has won the attention of ballet audiences, partly because of the similarities between Texas and his homeland and partly because he owns a pair of black cowboy boots.

''I think what makes Australians and Texans similar is a saltiness, a survivor's spirit, and also a kind of quiet determination,'' Mr. Welch said. ''There's definitely a feeling, too, that if you come from Texas, you come from your own country. Australia is like that, too, being a part of the Commonwealth but being so isolated.''

''Tales of Texas'' was commissioned before Mr. Welch took the reins at the Houston Ballet, and although it was not designated to be his official welcome, it has turned out to be just that. Audiences are likely to use it to gauge the direction in which he will take the company.

In previous works for the Houston Ballet like ''Indigo'' (1999) and ''Bruiser'' (2000), Mr. Welch mixed hard-hitting, contemporary choreography with a narrative. Perhaps to reassure Houston audiences that their beloved story ballets will not disappear from the repertory, Mr. Welch has dedicated ''Tales of Texas'' to Mr. Stevenson.

The ballet comprises three sections: ''Big Sky,'' a journey across the tough Texas terrain set to music by Aaron Copland; ''Cline Time,'' a glimpse inside a Texas honky-tonk, complete with blue jeans and broken-hearted lovers, using the music of Patsy Cline; and ''Pecos,'' an account of the legendary Pecos Bill, who could lasso a tornado and dug the Rio Grande with his hands. ''Pecos'' is set to a commissioned score by Matthew Pierce.

Mr. Welch said he enjoyed making ''Pecos'' because it reminded him of aboriginal mythology in Australia: everything in it could be tied to natural events.

''Choreographically this ballet is way Stanton,'' said Lauren Anderson, a principal dancer with the company and a native Texan. ''He's a hopeless romantic. In one way when it comes to his choreography, he doesn't have a heart because it's really hard. But when it comes to the story, his emotions run deep.''

''I was surprised that this Australian took it on,'' she added. ''I thought, first of all, 'He's very brave.' ''

For ''Cline Time'' Mr. Welch hired the two-step champions Bob Wheatley and Shawna Dysart of Houston to coach the company. The Texas two-step is set to several ballads in ''Cline Time.'' This part of the ballet looks the busiest, with dancers alternately kicking up their heels on the dance floor and cozying up to each other, exactly what goes on at the post-party each night at RodeoHouston, which coincidentally is at Reliant Stadium throughout the run of the ballet.

Agnes de Mille's ''Rodeo'' and Eugene Loring's ''Billy the Kid'' may have included cowboys, but two-stepping has generally been saved for corrals, until now.

To help keep things from getting too much like life on the ranch, Maina Gielgud, the Houston Ballet's artistic associate and the former artistic director of the Australian Ballet, has participated in the rehearsal process. Ms. Gielgud, the niece of John Gielgud, has put strict classical standards into effect. Although she might own a pair of cowboy boots, the dancers have not seen them because she wears ballet and pointe shoes in rehearsals.

Meanwhile the soloist Ian Casady, who plays Pecos Bill, must get used to doing pirouettes while wearing chaps and boots.

''They're not too bad -- they just have a slight heel -- but jumping and turning in them feels a little strange,'' Mr. Casady, a California native, said of the boots. ''I've got to go out and buy some boots because you can't live in Texas and not have them. I do have the hat, though.''

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company