Applause: In step with Stevenson

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

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

Constance McMillen in heady company as a Glamour Women of the Year honoree

Constance McMillen: Woman of the Year

A year ago, Constance McMillen was just another Mississippi teenager looking forward to her senior year in high school. Then came the spring and prom season. And officials at Itawamba Agricultural High School told Constance she couldn’t take her girlfriend as her date to the prom.

Most teens — especially those in small towns and rural areas — would have just let it go. Hell, most LGBT teens in areas like that wouldn’t have even brought up the subject in the first place. I mean, small towns and rural areas — especially in Mississippi — tend not to be thought of as bastions of tolerance and acceptance, and it takes more courage than most grown people have to be willing to take a stand like that when you know you are making yourself a target.

But obviously, Constance McMillen is not most teens. And obviously, she has courage to spare. Because she refused to just sit there and take the discrimination and bigotry. She fought back. And she ended up winning the right to take her girlfriend to the prom and she won $35,000 from the school district, to boot — not to mention that she also became a national hero of the LGBT equality movement.

Constance has gotten a lot of awards and recognition and met a lot of celebrities in the months since she first garnered national attention with her fight. But next Monday, Nov. 8, she will find herself in some truly heady company when she heads to Carnegie Hall in New York City to accept a Glamour magazine Women of the Year Award. Just look at the folks with whom Constance is being honored: Grammy Award-winning pop star Fergie, Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts, designer Donatella Versace, singer-actress-icon-goddess Cher (who will be honored with a lifetime achievement award), Queen Rania of Jordan and sports superstars Lindsey Vonn, Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie.

Katie Spotz, the 22-year-old who rowed solo across the Atlantic to raise awareness for the global need for clean drinking water, OB-gyn Dr. Hawa Awi and her daughters who have faced down militants and threats to their lives to provide food and care for some 90,000 displaces Somali refugees on their property near Mogadishu, and worldwide female heads of states — including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania, Prime Minister Iveta Radičovó of Slovakia, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago, and Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor of Croatia — are also among the honorees.

Can you say, “Wow”?

Take a minute to think about the accomplishments of the women named in the list above. Then think about Constance McMillen and what she has accomplished. I think it is amazing — and fantastic — that Glamour magazine is putting an 18-year-old lesbian who stood up for her right to take her girlfriend to the prom in the company of these other outstanding women who have done their part to change the world and make it a better place.

—  admin