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.