News Column

Director does a dance to make 'Houston Ballet' film

November 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 02--If John Carrithers and Delicia Harvey felt jitters when they welcomed me into their neat, sunlit Midtown film-production office one recent morning, it wasn't obvious.

Their first feature-length documentary, "Houston Ballet: Breaking Boundaries," premieres Nov. 10. Carrithers directed the film; Harvey, his wife, produced it.

He hadn't yet laid in the text identifying the dozens of people whose on-camera interviews shape the film's narrative, but that was just tidying up, really.

"The hardest part of any feature-length film is the endurance it takes to finish it," Carrithers said. "A lot of people stall out."

Houston Ballet is young as classical dance companies go, but a lot has happened during its 58 years. Carrithers distilled hundreds of hours of film, including interviews, B-roll and historical footage, into an upbeat, inspirational 85 minutes.

Houston Ballet commissioned "Breaking Boundaries" less than a year ago, and to meet the schedule, Carrithers spent many nights at the kitchen table, working with a drive and a laptop while the couple's son was asleep.

He thinks the 2011 death of Andrea Vodehnal, the company's first ballerina, pushed some buttons. "People started to become aware that a lot of history was fading away," he said.

Executive director James Nelson, who trained at the Houston Ballet Academy in the 1980s and danced with the company from 1990 to 1996, was among them. Nelson wanted to capture the institutional heritage before other major personalities were gone.

The process was collaborative, but Carrithers said he didn't feel constrained. "We've been given a lot of trust," he said. "It's nice to have that trust, although I've come to realize it's something the ballet does all the time when it commissions choreographers."

To be efficient, Carrithers first interviewed personalities with the broadest perspective. Artistic director emeritus Ben Stevenson, the charismatic British choreographer who built Houston Ballet from a corps of 16 dancers into a world-class company during a rich period of 25 years, was first in line.

The film treats his three predecessors and successor with equal respect, loosely built into sections focused on each era: Tatiana Semenova, who died in 1996, founded the school in 1955. Nina Popova, who's 92, established the professional company in 1968. James Clouser, interim director in 1975 and 1976, introduced contemporary ideas. Stanton Welch has guided the company since 2003, aiming to keep it a choreographer's dream place and leading it into what he calls "another golden age."

The story begins in the '40s, when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo whet Houston's appetite for classical dance. Spending Christmas seasons in the Bayou City every year for more than a decade, the legendary touring company befriended local patrons. Those patrons, accustomed to seeing the best, wanted a world-class resident company. They had the means to support it, and their vision has remained steadfast.

Aristocratic Houston Grand Opera singer and arts leader Natasha Rawson, who had studied with George Balanchine in New York, established the Houston Foundation for Ballet in her living room in 1955. Rawson died in 2009; her daughter, Lucia Brandt -- one of the foundation's first students -- shares memories in the film.

Semenova, their first artistic director, danced as a young girl with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and starred with Paris Opera Ballet, but by 1955 had founded the American Youth Ballet in Baton Rouge, La. The foundation persuaded her to move it to Houston.

Semenova enforced strict professional standards, including a dress code that didn't allow her students into class with runs in their tights. Everyone called her, with great respect, "Madame."

The award-winning choreographer and director Debbie Allen recalls being rewarded once with a dollar and told, "You did good today. You bled through your shoes."

Allen, who grew up in Houston in the 1950s and '60s, won a four-year scholarship to the school in 1964, when she was 14. Allen told the Chronicle she's achieved so many "firsts" because of her skin color she doesn't count them anymore. But being accepted into the ballet's school may have been the most formative. The training she received there "engineered" the dancer she became, she said.

"She integrated Houston Ballet. That was huge. I had to rise to the occasion," Allen says in the film.

Semenova's students performed in Houston Grand Opera productions, and she staged her first production, "Enigma," in 1959, accompanied by the Houston Symphony. A decade into it, however, the board didn't see the quality they wanted onstage.

Carrithers doesn't delve into the backstage drama inherent with a dance company's growth, but the fiery Semenova was replaced in 1967 with Popova, another former Ballet Russe dancer. Popova, who had also danced with American Ballet Theatre and taught in New York at what was then called the High School for the Arts, brought strong ballet-world connections. Before that year was out, she had taught the students "Giselle" and enticed international stars Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn to guest-star in the ballet at Jones Hall.

By the end of 1969, she'd held auditions nationally to create a 16-member professional company; also hiring ballet masters, choreographers and more visiting stars (among them Edward Villella and Natalia Makarova).

"It's amazing what went on in that little studio," recalls Clouser, whom she hired to teach.

Popova also brought Frederic Franklin to stage "The Nutcracker," ordering costumes from Peter Walker's London workshop. (She hated the froufrou tutus and removed their pink flowers.) "By then everybody was doing it," she says, matter-of-factly, in the film. (She declined to appear but is present in voice-overs.) "I thought, why not? Children love it. People come. It will make money."

The money part was important because of financial troubles. Popova's tenure was turbulent; when she left after eight years, the popular Clouser tried to take the company in a more progressive direction.

Clouser, who felt the company should reflect the city, collaborated with Houston artists including Dorothy Hood and staged forward-charging works, including "Caliban," a rock ballet. That was long ago, but there's still a little sense of the shock that reverberated when the board passed him over to hire Stevenson in 1976.

Stevenson's success story, of course, is the company's biggest legacy, and the film touches on high points -- such as his insistence that Houston Ballet develop its own stars, the trips to China, Li Cunxin's dramatic defection, the development of Carlos Acosta and Lauren Anderson as the international ballet world's first black power couple.

"Houston Ballet: Breaking Boundaries" manages to squeeze in an amazing number of personalities without seeming like a talking-heads documentary. Carrithers understands the visual magic of dance, and the images that linger are his deft weaving of archival photos and footage. An inspired soundtrack ties it all together.

Carrithers could have taken the documentary in any number of directions but follows a strong thread with Houston Ballet's tradition of color-blind casting. That's not the only boundary the company has broken, but it's the strongest.

"We feel really lucky this film has the story it does," he said.

All the information he gathered started to take on a life once he laid in the film's visuals, he said. "And then, with the music, the payoff happens and you get to make a dance."

With three other documentaries in various stages of completion, Carrithers hopes to break boundaries of his own.

He directed photography for Laura Browder and Douglas Newman's "Mothers at War," based on female combat veterans; for Vivienne Lie Schiffer's "Relocation Arkansas," about a World War II Japanese internment camp; and for "38 Pieces," Susan and Francois de Menil's long-incubating film about the Byzantine frescoes rescued by Dominique de Menil.

Still, Carrithers Studio stays afloat as a commercial film operation whose clients include the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Houston Grand Opera.

"We'd like to have a new independent project of our own," Carrithers said. "This is our passion."

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