Applause: Let Love Out Has Texas Ties

LLO-RedCarl Priolo isn’t gay himself, but as a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, he was personally appalled by the hatred that kept gay men and lesbians from enjoying full social equality, including marriage rights. That’s when the jewelry designer and his son launched the Let Love Out campaign this past spring.

“I wanted to do something to honor the memory of my brother Chris, who died of AIDS in 1989,” Priolo says. “He was a gifted, passionate teacher and composer who never felt safe enough to come out to the world as a gay man.”

But the campaign has local relevance as well: Priolo’s son, Lucas — who joined in launching the campaign — is principal dancer with the Texas Ballet Theater.

The website, LetLoveOut.com, allows visitors to leave messages, but also to buy jewelry with an interlocking heart and infinity symbol,pictured,  rerpresents love, support and solidatiry.  Ten percent of profits will be donated to HIV/AIDS awareness.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Applause: In step with Stevenson

Texas Ballet Theater’s acclaimed artistic director looks ahead to a career milestone: His first staging of ‘Giselle’

Ben
Ben Stevenson has had many distinctions in his 75 years. Now entering his ninth season as artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater, the legendary leader of the Houston Ballet has been named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (he’s a native of Portsmouth, England) and even had a feature film made over his role in a famous Cold War defection (2009’s Mao’s Last Dancer, in which Stevenson was portrayed by Bruce Greenwood).

But oddly enough, even one of our most respected living ballet masters had a surprising gap in his resume: He has never staged one of the world’s most famous ballets, Giselle.

That’s about to change, though, as his production of the 19th century ballet by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot opens Texas Ballet Theater’s 2011-12 season in October.

“It’s a romantic ballet I’ve always liked,” said Stevenson in a phone conversation from Sonoma, Calif., where he was accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Anaheim International Dance Festival. “I’m going to keep the choreography from over the years, but am directing a new production of it — a traditional production.”

“Tradition” is key in the world of big-budget classical ballet, where The Nutcracker never misses a Christmas and audiences generally return to the warhorse titles like Swan Lake, perhaps even more than in the worlds of opera or musical theater. But even with that in mind, TBT’s upcoming season isn’t about the same-ol’, same-ol’.

It starts with the aforementioned masterpiece Giselle (not only Stevenson’s first staging, but a premiere for the company in its 54 years), and has the Nut, of course (the only ballet this season that will be performed at the Winspear Opera House). But there’s also the return of Stevenson’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the season ends with two weekends of the Portraits Ballet Festival, featuring two of Stevenson’s one-act ballets (Bartok and Image); George Balanchine’s Apollo; another new work for the company’s repertoire, Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena; as well as premieres by TBT dancers Carl Coomer and Peter Zweifel. The festival will take place at a new locale for the TBT: the Wyly Theatre.

It will mark the first ballet from Coomer. Zweifel, on the other hand, has had a new ballet in the company’s seasons for several years. His most recent, Love Always Remains, was an audience and critical hit.

“I think he’s grown a lot,” Stevenson says of Zweifel. “I always thought Peter had an amazing imagination, and he showed talent right from the beginning. Each piece he’s done has gotten stronger and stronger.”

Love Always Remains mixes contemporary rock music (MGMT) with classical (Vivaldi), which is something Stevenson says traditional ballet fans are going to have to get used to.

“I think if people want to do a piece to toilet flushing, and they think they’ve got a fabulous idea, then I say, ‘Well, let’s see what happens,’” Stevenson says.

What he doesn’t think audiences should get used to is canned music at TBT performances. There still won’t be live music this season nor in the foreseeable future, but Sir Ben insists it will return.

“I’ve not performed with a company without an orchestra before, and it’s very strange,” he says. “It’s tough for everyone right now, and it’s either cutting shows or cutting something else. When the economy gets better, we will have it again.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Volleyball-et: From en pointe to point scorer, dancer Jonah Villegas enjoys being a DIVA diva

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

For Jonah Villegas, the most frustrating thing about being a dancer is convincing people that his talent has nothing to do with a pole.

“When I tell people I’m a dancer they always say, ‘Where? BJ’s? The Tin Room?’” says the classically trained terpsichorean, who has worked with the Texas Ballet Theater. Last year, when he put his dancing career on hold, he decided to look for something else athletic he could do to stay limber and active.

“That’s why I joined DIVA,” says Villegas, 22.

Other than summers spent hitting a ball over a net in the sand, Villegas has no experience at volleyball. But when he complained to the man he was dating that life in suburban McKinney, was stifling for a young gay man, his boyfriend recommended he join the Dallas Independent Volleyball Association.

“I’ve been out since my senior year in high school, but it’s hard to be proud and loud when you’re surrounded by nothing but restaurants and straight people,” Villegas jokes. “I think that DIVA and the gay sports of Dallas are overlooked — I have made some really great friends and feel more part of the gay community. After I heard about DIVA, I still didn’t join for more than a year — I regret that I didn’t join sooner. It’s a good way to meet quality gay people.”

Villegas’ first season with DIVA started last summer; right now, he’s gearing up for the spring season, which kicks off with new member orientation and clinics this week.

“There is a wide range of skill levels. When you do to the new member clinic, they figure what division you’re in: recreational, intermediate, competitive, advanced, power or open,” he says; intermediate is the largest, and the division he’s in. From then, captains conduct a draft to put you on teams.

So does his ballet training transfer to the volleyball court? Yes and no.

“They are very similar in the fact you need to be focused and there’s a specific way to do things. Your body tells you what come natural to you and you have to train yourself how to do it the right way. But there are differences in the way you move.”

There’s another way they’re alike, too.

“The dance world is very cutthroat — if you’re not practicing you’re already behind. I joined for friends but these people are competitive! There’s lots of slapping butts and laughing, but they don’t like to lose. Well, neither do I.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 11, 2001.

—  John Wright

That’s Brynt-ertainment

Contemporary Ballet principal dancer Brynt Beitman finds modern dance welcomes the gay aesthetic

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer stevencraiglindsey@me.com

MEN IN MOTION  |  Brynt Beitman, left, gets his Texas groove on for ‘Wild & Free,’ Friday at the Lakewood Theater. (Photo courtesy Brian Guilliaux)
MEN IN MOTION | Brynt Beitman, left, gets his Texas groove on for ‘Wild & Free,’ Friday at the Lakewood Theater. (Photo courtesy Brian Guilliaux)

WILD & FREE
Lakewood Theater, 1825 Abrams Parkway. Oct. 15. 7 p.m.
$25.  214-821-2066.
ContemporaryBalletDallas.tix.com.

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For every parent who has ever worried about pushing their children into extracurricular activities that they might not like, there’s the strong possibility that a creative spark will be lit that a child might otherwise have never discovered. That’s exactly what happened to contemporary ballet dancer Brynt Beitman when he was eight years old.

“My sister wanted to take dance and my parents made me play football and do all the guy stuff and I didn’t like that,” he says. “They actually offered to have me try dance and at first I was like, ‘No, dancing’s for girls!’ And by the end of my first class, I was like ‘OK! I really like this!’”

Beitman began his training at Kitty Carter’s Dance Factory with jazz and tap. At 13, he started seriously training in ballet. After studying with Krassovska Ballet Jueness and Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet, he spent summers at Boston Ballet and Southern Ballet

Theater, among others, eventually getting his bachelor’s from the Juilliard School in New York.

“Now I look back and dance has been the most consistent part of my life,” says Beitman, 27.

Tonight, Beitman performs in Wild & Free with Contemporary Ballet Dallas, where he’s been for three seasons. The mission of the company, which was started in 2001 by SMU alumni hoping to revitalize dance in Dallas, is to reach a broad audience while cultivating emerging artists and choreographers.

The show honors the independent spirit of contemporary Texas artists. Original works will be set to the music of Norah Jones, Nina Simone, and even Texas music legend Stevie Ray Vaughan — no Swan Lake here.

“It’s based on Texas. There will be something that everybody will like,” Beitman says. “There are nine pieces from nine different choreographers. If you don’t like one thing, just wait 10 minutes … but there’s nothing to dislike!”

Beitman’s work with Contemporary Ballet Dallas confirms his conviction that modern dance is where his talents truly lie.

“I think it’s more creative. Classical is more codified and you have less freedom and a lot more restrictions choreographically.

Contemporary can be whatever you want it to be,” says Beitman, who hopes to become a choreographer. He also thinks as a general rule that contemporary ballet attracts more gay male dancers, but he’s quick to point out that his opinion is far from a scientific sampling.

“I think that the athletic bravura of classical ballet attracts straight guys, where contemporary dance is a lot more times internally driven and in my experience, it seems to attract…” — he pauses before blurting out — “… queers!”

To Beitman, being a dancer is particularly rewarding because of the openness, diversity and acceptance of not just homosexuality, but people from a vast array of backgrounds.

“It’s like somebody being in fashion and not being open to gay people. Contemporary dance is the same way. There’s no real stereotypical dancer as far as their private lives are concerned,” he says. “It’s a really universal thing and there all different types of people. And here I am!”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Bumpin’ uglies

TBT’s Texas two step produces a gender-bending twist on ‘Cinderella’

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer stevencraiglindsey@me.com

TEXAS TWO STEP  |  Peter Zweifel and Mark Troxler bring dancing skill and comic panache — as well as a bit of masculinity — to Ben Stevenson’s campy production of ‘Cinderella.’ (Photo courtesy Ellen Appel)
TEXAS TWO STEP | Peter Zweifel and Mark Troxler bring dancing skill and comic panache — as well as a bit of masculinity — to Ben Stevenson’s campy production of ‘Cinderella.’ (Photo courtesy Ellen Appel)

CINDERELLA
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St. Oct. 1–3. Bass Hall, 525 Commerce St., Fort Worth, Oct. 22–24. $19–$99.
TexasBalletTheater.org

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Once upon a time, Texas Ballet Theater decided to have a little fun with a fairy tale classic. Artistic director Ben Stevenson has a wicked sense of humor when it comes to the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella, so for the upcoming productions of the timeless love story, Peter Zweifel and Mark Troxler are bringing a little extra something to these female roles: A bulge in their tights.

Gender-bending is common in opera, where female sopranos sometimes take on “trouser roles,” portraying men. According to Troxler, though, the stepsister roles are often portrayed by men in productions of Cinderella — after all, Rose Room divas notwithstanding, men make the ugliest women. But that won’t distract from the fact that these are two highly skilled, accomplished dancers.

Troxler trained with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and spent summers with San Francisco Ballet School and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy before joining TBT, which he’s been with for nine years. Zweifel, who found his love for ballet after his mother put him into dance classes when he was a sprig, is in his sixth season with TBT. He got his start at the Virginia School of the Arts and the Stevenson Academy.

For the two seasoned dancers, the ugly stepsister roles present the opportunity to do something outside their comfort zones.

“This is more of a character acting role, as opposed to a dancing role. I am also playing a girl, so pretty much everything about it is different,” says Zweifel. “I like that I get to be funny and silly. These are sides of myself that I don’t usually get to explore onstage.”

Troxler agrees that this is a hilarious production.

“My favorite part of this ballet is the humor. From start to finish it’s a roller coaster of laughs,” he says. “With a love story thrown in.”

Troxler, who will also be playing other parts in Cinderella, isn’t phased by the need to quickly transform from one character to another. “It’s not too big of a deal switching roles,” he says.

“You just change your mental preparation and your costume.”

But really, he just wants to dance as much as he can.

“What made me decide to dance is the same thing that keeps me going every day my knees are aching and my back is sore. The love of the art form,” Troxler says. “It’s a very rare career and you can only dance for so long.”

Ballet, like opera, can be intimidating to a lot of people, often because the perception is that the performances will be boring or too complex. So Cinderella presents a great opportunity for ballet novices and enthusiasts alike to enjoy something lighthearted and fun.

“Just drop whatever horrible stereotype you have created in your mind and be open to experiencing something different. Come and enjoy the music and the dancing,” Zweifel says. ”Ballet is very athletic, which I think is something most people don’t realize. So even if you are a complete jock, you will be able to enjoy it. Don’t be afraid.”

Enjoying it won’t be the problem —  it’ll be stifling the desire to cheer for the stepsisters to put that prima ballerina, Cinderella, in her place. But even if they don’t come out on top, they’ll most certainly come out with a five-o’clock shadow.

For readers of Dallas Voice who make a reservation by calling 877-828-9200 and use the promo code “stepsister,” tickets for many seats are 50 percent off.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 1, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Pas de don’t

Movie about TBT director Sir Ben Stevenson mixes ballet with cliche

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer thinhead@mindspring.com

Mao’s Last Dancer
EN POINTE | Bruce Greenwood, left, plays Ben Stevenson, now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater, who turns a poor Chinese dancer into a sensation in the schmaltzy ‘Mao’s Last Dancer.’

2.5 out of 5 stars
MAO’S LAST DANCER
Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan. Rated PG. 115 mins.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

A great story and some amazing dancing are, unfortunately, sacrificed on the altar of cheesy melodrama in Mao’s Last Dancer. It’s hard to believe the great Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) could have watched this, let alone directed it. And no one who even typed the scripts for Shine and The Notebook could have been responsible for this screenplay, let alone the person who wrote or adapted them (Jan Sardi).

This is the true-ish story of Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), who was invited to spend the summer of 1981 with the Houston Ballet and decided to stay in America. In a throwback to movies of several decades ago, Bruce Greenwood plays the ballet’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson — now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater — as an obviously gay man who lives alone and has absolutely no life outside of his work.

Li, by contrast, is obviously straight, because even as a boy, every time he partners a female on stage there is another female in the audience looking jealous.

Nine years prior Li, one of seven sons of a peasant couple, was plucked from his humble village to be trained at the Beijing Arts Academy, along with 39 other Chinese children. They’re given a standard indoctrination in Communism, including being taught that China has “the highest standard of living in the world,” and capitalist nations the lowest.

When he arrives in oil-rich Texas at the height of the boom, Li is overwhelmed, having never seen such luxury, even in Beijing; he can hardly believe Ben has such a house to himself. But the Chinese consul has counseled him not to trust anyone, “especially women — they’ll lead you astray.”

The early part of the film toggles between Houston and Li’s early years in China, where he is unhappy until an old-school teacher, later prosecuted for his teachings, makes him appreciate dance and his own skills.

When the Houston delegation visits Beijing in 1980, they’re disappointed to see the students, except for Li, are more like athletes than dancers. In Houston Li gets a break but has only three hours to learn the pas de deux from Don Quixote.

Li meets aspiring dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull), who, in this screenplay, is more a device than a person. Afraid of what will happen to his family in China if he defects, Li learns he can stay in the U.S. if he marries a citizen. (Ben pitches a hissy fit.)

Unable to contact his parents, Li worries about them constantly. Years later, Ben arranges for them to surprise him by showing up in the audience for a performance. It must have taken months to arrange and could have taken a lot of stress off Li if he’d known it was in the works, but the surprise makes for a more upbeat (and corny) climax.

That may be the stupidest thing in the movie but there are countless smaller things, like people working in a Washington office in what must be the middle of the night. Even original twists are presented in such a way as to look clichéd.

The ballet sequences, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, are the saving grace of Mao’s Last Dancer — if only we got a two-hour recital instead of the story. Not to be shortchanged is the principal dancer, Chi Cao, who is also a decent actor as far as the script allows. He’d be a natural for a new film biography of Bruce Lee — I’d pay to see Chi replicate Lee’s fight choreography.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas