Stage: Wednesday, March 27, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Fairy Tale

Ben Stevenson’s much-anticipated tenure at FWDB begins with Cinderella.

By LEONARD EUREKA

Major changes are on tap for Fort Worth Dallas Ballet as it goes into season-closing performances of Cinderella this weekend. Not only does this performance signal the beginning of the Ben Stevenson era, with a revival of his 1970 full-length version of the popular classic, but, wonder of wonders, the company is finally going to merge with Dallas in a true partnership that many thought would never happen.

Despite the company’s name, a popular misconception is that Fort Worth and Dallas already have a joint dance operation. Not true. Fort Worth has a dance company with administrative offices, rehearsal facilities, a staff, a school, and 20-something dancers. Dallas has a suite of offices with the name “Dallas Supporters of Fort Worth Dallas Ballet” printed on the door. It’s a presenting organization that underwrites performances of FWDB at State Fair Music Hall, raising its own money to schedule and promote the Fort Worth company in Dallas. It has nothing to do with creating ballets. Last season the company ran out of steam and nearly closed the doors.

And little wonder. With no guiding artistic light for two seasons and with the washout of previous artistic director Benjamin Houk, FWDB lacked focus and was playing to half-empty houses. (It barely kept its friends here.) The company canceled operations for a spell last season and furloughed the dancers. Things looked bleak, but the board of directors fought back and revamped itself, pledging to raise $1.2 million to reach solvency again. At the same time a serious search for an artistic director led to the hiring of Ben Stevenson, internationally known choreographer and 25-year leader of the Houston Ballet.

Stevenson doesn’t take full artistic control of FWDB until summer, but his presence as artistic advisor this season cast a huge, protective aura around the company. The dancers, too, showed new life with dramatically improved performances. Asked why he took on the challenge of a small, struggling company at age 66, when he might sit back and bask in the light of his many achievements, his response was instant and sincere, “I thought I could do something for dance. When Fort Worth and Dallas combine forces there’s an opportunity for a major company here. I think I can help that along.” For his contributions to dance, the Englishman has already received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II and numerous awards and accolades around the world. Stevenson remains artistic director emeritus of the Houston Ballet, overseeing the staging of his extensive repertory there.

Stevenson seems an ideal candidate for pulling Fort Worth and Dallas together. An outsider of international stature with no local ties, he brings a neutral energy to the reorganization that doesn’t favor either end of the Metroplex. Offices, rehearsal studios, and schools are scheduled for both cities now, with the company looking forward to residency in the new Dallas opera house when it’s built, in addition to Bass Performance Hall.

Over the years, Stevenson’s choreographic gifts have been lavished on a number of evening-long story ballets, anathema to some and a joy to others. Cinderella, his first, harks back to his early days in America working with the old Washington Ballet. Fort Worth saw a version of the ballet created by then-company director Paul Mejia a few years ago. That production was a casualty of the tornado that tore through town and took the roof off the company’s warehouse, soaking everything inside. The scenery was salvaged and will be seen again, but the costumes are new.

Houston Ballet also revived Stevenson’s Cinderella this month, and it was enchanting. Sumptuously mounted and engagingly danced, the ballet is still fresh and inviting after 30-odd years. Stevenson took Prokofiev’s score, which found the composer in a gentle, romantic mood, and created a wondrous, child-like fairy tale, really a morality play about giving and receiving. The collaboration of young choreographer and Russian firebrand-turned-poet is one of the infrequent triumphs that pop up now and then to brighten the dance landscape and reinforce the idea that story ballets are indeed worthwhile. The performance was sold out with standees in the back.

FWDB’s production may not be as heavily attended as the Houston show. But if whoever dances the title role comes close to the expressive qualities of Mireille Hassenboehler’s performance in Houston, people will really be getting something. Projecting the innocence and vulnerability of the role is a challenge, and there were moments when Hassenboehler reminded one of the late Margot Fonteyn, who danced Cinderella for Stevenson and embodied poetry in every move in whatever ballet she appeared.


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