In conversation with
Riding the Dragon
This interview was conducted by phone on July 29th, 2020
Stanton Welch AM is one of Australia’s most beloved and prolific choreographers. Since 2003 he’s been the Artistic Director of the internationally acclaimed Houston Ballet, and since 2006 has served as a Jury Member for the Youth America Grand Prix.
In this interview Stanton talks about creativity, his creative process and the impact that Covid19, and challenge more broadly, has had on his creativity, and how the Houston Ballet are adapting to the new frontier.
I began by asking Stanton about how his evenings had changed since Covid19.
Stanton : It’s very different. I’ve always been nocturnal and now I’m having dinner at 5.30pm and I don’t want to turn the TV on because, you know, I’m trying to avoid the news. The evenings have become a little more boring, which puts me to sleep, which I do while listening to podcasts and then wake up early.
MDM: What kind of podcasts do you like?
Stanton : I’m listening to gory stuff. True crime stuff. Since Mark died [Stanton’s husband passed away in an accident in 2019], I find it’s the only thing that can take me out of feeling upset. I’m up on the whole trial transcripts and find the interrogations and interviews very interesting for the understanding of human behaviour.
MDM: I’d like to ask you more about Mark, but can I start by asking you about choreography and creativity. It occurs to me that 2020 means it’s been 30 years that you’ve been a professional choreographer: so what does creativity mean to you, or what has it come to mean to you and what do you understand creativity to be?
Stanton: Wow! That’s a hard question. There are many facets to that. You know, I think there’s an unchangeable, uncontrollable element to it and no matter how old you get or how experienced you are it’s still a beast you have to ride like a dragon. You’re never fully in charge of it all the time. As I’ve gotten older, sure, I know what my triggers are, and I know I have a practice, but it’s always a rare, interesting and unique thing. For me it’s never been something that I can just go, “Okay, now I’m going to choreograph.” It comes in waves, comes in patches. There’ll be weeks I can’t sleep, and I feel very creative and then they’ll be a week I just can’t do anything.
I often use surfing as an analogy for choreographing, though I think that it’s the same for a performer. You go on stage for your solo, you want it to be 100 out of 100, but you’re going to have some areas, some weird feelings, something that doesn’t quite go right, and you have to ride that wave to the shore. And that’s the skill of the surfing. No-one expects you to be perfect on a wave, they want to see how you handle the waves.
MDM – So is that what turns you on; wanting to ride the dragon?
Stanton: Yeah, and that’s why in a funny way, when cyclone Harvey hit [Houston Ballet was temporarily closed due to extreme flooding in 2018], first you go through a sense of mourning. You’ve lost your seasons, we’ve lost our roles, lost opportunities. The thing that turns you on, that thing that makes you want to be alive and come back to work and do things again is gone. And then it becomes a question; how are we going to get around that, how we going to solve this problem?
Once we triggered into that as a company, suddenly the energy became very different. There was an energy that felt like, we will survive, we’ll make it. Of course, there are days and weeks where you still think, oh my gosh, how will we get through, yet when we’re creating, that energy becomes addictive; the food that fuels you.
And yet it can’t be just a band aid, you know, it has to be a new path. We can’t sit around and mourn the season we lost. The attitude has to be; let’s make a new season with what we have.
MDM – I’m going to circle back and ask more about Houston Ballet, about the dancers and about this particular year in a moment, but let me ask you another, more fundamental question; what do you think the functional purpose of creativity is, both in your life and more generally for society?
Stanton: [laughs] Wow! Okay let me think …
For me, it is addictive. Yes. It’s like the only way I feel I can express myself and find things out about myself that I don’t know.
MDM: Sorry, I’m going to interject: why is it important for you to express yourself? Because lots of people probably don’t …
Stanton: I think everyone should. I think we all have to find a way. And that’s the problem and the puzzle of being human. I loved expressing myself through dancing too, but the performing element of it was a little bit … more nerve wracking to me. Being in control of it from behind, I’m not actually even the one expressing it, I’ve done my expression with the dance privately, in a dark studio somewhere. They’re the ones that have to go out and have the pressure of translating that.
And then I think for society, it’s the fingerprints that we culturally leave of our generation; we leave for society.
We’re having many important and long overdue discussions here in America about race right now, and I know that’s also true of Australia’s journey, and I can’t help but think back on how important it was when The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre collaborated. That was part of change. And yes, it was just one collaboration and there needs to be many more, and there’s a long way to go, but that was a small part in a big revolution that’s happening. And that’s the sort of thing the arts can do. It doesn’t always do it by rubbing it in your face, it does it through subtle ways, through literature, through clothing. People might start wearing an African print on a T shirt, simply because they like it, and maybe they don’t even know why they like it at first, or even where the print came from, but then slowly it connects with something else, and that connects with something else and slowly, from deep inside a change happens. Of course, we also need to have the tough, robust conversations, art doesn’t minimise that, and yet there is something I like about that subtle seed that art can plant within someone.
I think the generation we grew up in, the “We are the World” generation, and everyone was supposed to be “colour blind” and everyone was going to come together … well, that’s not what happened. And it’s not what the new generation wants. They want immediate action and not to be “colour blind”, but to see everything. To see difference and to embrace and celebrate it. And I think culture has led that, the arts have led that. We are leaders, we should be. You know, the change might take hundreds of years, but that’s what the arts are a part of, and what creativity can do.
MDM: So it’s a cultural fingerprint that generations leave behind for others, it’s a form of self-expression, it’s an addiction for you personally; anything else that you’d like to add?
Stanton: I think there’s a unitedness about the act of creativity. There’s something that goes beyond, flows across and connects architecture, cooking or anything really where people are exploring. It’s transcends language and country. There’s something [he pauses to laugh] at a Star Trek level, where we become all one people. And I think that’s so wonderful about the arts; that underlying and unifying human impulse to want to explore and discover.
MDM: Let me now ask about your creative process; what is it, or do you have one, and if so, has it altered over the last 30 years?
Stanton: I think the process is different depending on the particular type of ballet. I have three genres that I work in. I have the classical repertoire, where I’m doing research and trying to find old versions of solos and ballets and trying to work with the historical. That takes me on a certain sort of path and that’s when I’m building a new, La Bayadere or Giselle.
And then there are those ballets that are completely just stand alone creative, like Sylvia or Marie, yet you still have a story and you’re structuring music and concepts around that story.
And then there are the one act ballets, where you can just do whatever you want to do and there’s an abstract method to that. They each have a slightly different path to get to them. As a Director [he laughs again] – I think I keep making film references – but think of the MGM movies of the 40’s and you have that amazing collection of film stars in your movie house and so you have to create films, or make sure that there are enough films for all those different artists. That’s what a ballet company kind of feels like at times. And as a choreographer I often feel like I’m trying to create work that’s unique for each of the dancers too, which is not something I do when I go and make a work on another company, like San Francisco Ballet for example. Then I’m going to make it sort of more for myself, if that makes sense.
So they’re always a little bit different. Sometimes the story comes first and then I’m looking for music, and sometimes I’ll hear a piece of music and I immediately know what I want to do. But I have to say that I feel like, in the 20 years while I was dancing, I’d often make ballets in my spare time. I’d write them out, I’d costume them, and I’d cast them with all the dancers that were in The Australian Ballet at the time. And so, I have a catalogue of 60 or 70 ballets! And it’s fascinating to me that those projects are still so viable, and I thank God I did that work when I wasn’t on performing and can still draw on those ideas now. What would I be doing now if I hadn’t done that then, now that I don’t get to go out and research or travel?
MDM: So has your process altered over time? Do you still costume it all and choreograph it all in your head before you walk into the studio?
Stanton: Yes. All that stuff that you would remember, I’d say I’m still similar. I definitely like to come in with material. I think the first few days, or with the beginning of a piece of music, I think it’s important that everybody has a sense of what it is, even if you alter it later. I just can’t stand rehearsals where there’s a vagueness for too long.
MDM – Is that like a key to you; passing a key to the style or tone of the new work to the dancers?
Stanton: Yeah. And I think that if you’re walking into the room and you don’t know … what have you done before you came in? That just always fascinates me.
I mean of course, we have choreographers that come here who entirely choreograph on the spot … but that’s just not my nature. I do think that as I’ve gotten older and now been here for a long time, and I’ve gotten to know these dancers and them me, in fact most of them I’ve known since they were in the school [Houston Ballet Academy], so we now have a short hand. I find that if someone comes from another company that they can really struggle at the speed with which we choreograph. But that’s just from practise; because of how much history we have, how much time we’ve spent together.
MDM: Obviously much of the world has been experiencing this really challenging time recently due to the pandemic and much of the dance industry the world over has closed down; how has this affected your creativity, and how has your creative process had to adapt during this time?
Stanton: After the initial shock we had to kick into, okay, we have to be creative. We wanted to finish the season as best as possible, so we were still meeting online three times a week. I’d choreograph by filming myself dancing on my phone, and then email it to them and they watched it, and then we Zoomed together to correct each other.
You know, I love film. Film has always been my second love beyond dance and I’m thankful of that now, because you have to be aware of the camera, and the space in the camera, and the relationship between camera and dancer, how they’re filmed; it’s part of the choreography. It’s like Fosse and Gene Kelly all those great people. So that’s what it’s going to become. And even though Billy Idol was a very short filmed dance [filmed on Houston Ballet to the Billy Idol song, Dancing with Myself] and you know, I was trying to include the entire company, and we were all just learning the process, when we come back I’d like to make more dance videos that are more high-tech and sophisticated and I think that’s how much has changed. It’s become not just about making a ballet, but making a film with dance in it.
MDM – The company dancers at Houston Ballet seem to have responded with this outpouring of incredible creativity that we’ve all loved watching in the digital space; has all of this been initiated by you, or is this something that they’ve taken the initiative for?
Stanton: We met and of course we all felt that we didn’t want to lose the company, but if that’s the case then we need to do stuff. We need to create. That’s who we are. So, who can edit, who can Direct, who feels comfortable on film? We divided into groups, and we’d come up with subjects; we’re going to do this ballet, we’re going to do this section, we’re going to do this or that. And then we worked out how to best use video for the dancers to learn. And you know, we had great company participation. The general reaction was, well, we’ve got half the year left to go, and we want to make stuff, so how are we going to make stuff?
I knew right from the beginning we’d lost a season. I had no doubt and I couldn’t believe some companies were still planning performing seasons months in advance. When this plague was rocketing around the country, when we’re watching Italy dissolve, I just felt, well … what on earth is going to happen to us? Why would it be any different here?
We had a really blunt conversation together, and so I think as the scale unfolded we weren’t shocked. There wasn’t a sense in the beginning of, oh well, we’ll wait for months and see what happens, it was immediately like, oh my God the company could fold, what are we going to do? And I think that helped. We immediately got in the lifeboat. That’s how I describe it. We have to get in the lifeboat and we all have to paddle. And if we’re not all paddling then we’re not going to make it to shore. As it is now, I think we’re still going to have one of the biggest number of weeks of all the American companies. And that’s huge, because it’s so bad that there are American companies that likely won’t make it through this at all.
We all have to come to the party. It’s an art form, so we have to create things that people want.
You know, that’s what happens in any emergency. We need to come together. And when that emergency goes on for four months and you’re furloughed and you realise your whole industry doesn’t exist, well, you can’t even go to another ballet company. Because it’s not Houston Ballet that’s struggling, it’s all of them. You can’t go to a musical, there is no musical theatre. You can’t go and do a film, there is no film.
MDM – Where is Houston Ballet in terms of; is there a 2021 season being planned?
Stanton: 2021 is the one that we’re about to start. We’re going to make a ballet for online that will be a 1/2 hour one act ballet, and that will premiere only online. And hopefully that will have some kind of revenue source behind it. It won’t be filmed on our phones, it will be professionally filmed. We’re going make that and that will be Project One. That will be followed by a Christmas Spectacular, which is also going to be filmed. I’m thinking that maybe I’ll only be choreographing Solos, and Pas de Deux with those people that live together. And that will go out in place of Nutcracker.
I have some interesting ideas I’m exploring that I think could get us through to June 2021, but I’m not ready to share those publicly just yet. With things so different, there’s obviously lots of conversations that need to take place, in fact particularly when things are so different, because you want everyone to want to stay in that lifeboat and paddle with you.
MDM – You’ve been the Artistic Director at Houston Ballet since 2003; have you consciously worked to develop a spirit or atmosphere at Houston Ballet where everyone’s creativity is fostered and developed, or is it just something about being part of a choreographers’ company that makes it inherently creative?
Stanton: Yes, both. In their hunt for a new Director, the Board was faced with the decision that all Boards face; do you want a choreographer-based company, or do you want a non-choreographer-based company, because they’re different. Ben’s company [former Artistic Director, Ben Stevenson] had been a choreographer-based company and prior to him was James Clouser, who was also a choreographer. And so they really came to the conclusion that that is what they were looking for. And I thought it was such a special company in that way, and I have a pride in that. I think it’s important that there remain some choreographer-based companies.
And so yeah, I’ve been very thankful for that. And the community here in Houston is like that; the Opera company produces new work, the Alley Theatre does. So I feel that it’s something unique about this city, how the fundraising is in this city, and that the audience is actually very Liberal, and very explorative and they don’t mind things, things that I don’t think we could create in New York or in the Midwest.
MDM – So they’re on the Star Trek Voyager with you.
Stanton: [laughs] They are! It’s Texas right. And it reminds me of Australia. There’s kind of an attitude of; yeah, you know, I’ll have a go at that, I’ll have a look at that.
MDM: Can you give us a sense of how you work?
Stanton: I like rehearsals to be fast and smart, and I’d rather finish everyone early and go home rather than fill in the rehearsal for two hours, not knowing my stuff. So because I’m like that, then the dancers are like that, and then the school is like that. At least half our company is from the school, and in the Principal ranks it’s more like 2/3 of them are from the school. So they’re all people of that same kind of skill set. Intelligent dancers.
You know, we don’t have any dancers here that when a modern choreographer comes and wants them to roll on the floor, that they don’t want to be in the ballet. That doesn’t work here. That’s the difference. All our Principals are in there, rolling around, being in the back of the ballet. And they don’t care, they just want to be in the ballet. And that energy is the Houston Ballet.
And that’s why when this happened, when Covid19 happened, we could trigger into that next thing; we’re facing struggle, who knows, maybe having to close, and so we need to get up and keep moving.
MDM – Last year you received the devastating news that your Husband, Mark, was killed in an accident. How has this affected your creativity?
Stanton: [a long pause] Yeah.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been thinking about this for … you know, my imagination since I was a little kid through to Mark’s death was very much a place that I always preferred to be. If I got bored, whatever was happening, I liked to be in my imagination. It’s not a scary place. I could touch fear, I could touch pain, and I could touch love and all of that, but …
But now when I want to go into my imagination, all my imagination wants to do is deal with what I’m processing as a person and I’m not ready to do that with my imagination yet. So that’s the puzzle. Yeah …
So I’ve not listened to new music for a year and a half and that’s weird to me. I just find it too emotional; it just gets too emotional. So I’ve really tried to go back into the 80’s and 70’s music that I knew as a kid, that has different memories for me and use that as a trigger, but it’s something I haven’t yet sorted out … [a sad laugh]
Your imagination … you’re not in control of it. You go into your imagination and you’re going to have to act it out, act the scene, feel the scene. You let yourself actually feel like that, and I know I’m not ready to do that, I know I’m not strong enough to go in there and test that and come back out, if that makes sense …
MDM: You said earlier that your imagination was like, “riding the dragon”. But it now sounds like perhaps that dragon feels a little bit too out of control.
Yeah, I mean even when you act the role in a ballet, or in theatre, sometimes it can take you hours or days to get over that emotion. A choreographer feels the same way, I’m just at home doing it, I’m at home stabbing myself as Madam Butterfly or crying over a child. I’m still trying to make myself live that experience. [a long pause]
But I am trying things, otherwise everything is just dark and deathly, and it can’t be that way.
MDM: Do you see creativity as a healing process?
Stanton: Yeah. I mean, when it happened several people that I hold in the highest esteem, like John Neumeier and Mark Morris immediately contacted me with the lecture about getting back into creation. And in that moment, I was caught off guard by it, like, “What the Hell”, it’s not even a month.
But now I sort of understand it a bit more because, you have to get back in the room, you can’t not look. And I think interestingly enough this [Covid19] has done it for me. I have no option. I’m facing the destruction of the company, or I have to make a ballet in a few months [he laughs at the craziness of it]. You know, it couldn’t be more black and white; there’s no option.
MDM: It’ll be interesting to hear what this next process is like for you.
Stanton: You know, so much of choreography is obviously about the intimacy with the dancer, touching them, moving with them, and all of that is gone. Now you’re staring at their image on a screen and your image on a screen.
I think the whole choreographic process is going to be very different…
MDM: Stanton, it’s been absolutely wonderful chatting with you and listening to you talk about creativity. It’s been fascinating and inspiring. Thank you.
If you are in a position to, please consider a donation to help keep the wonderful Houston Ballet dancing! Houston ballet have set up a crisis relief fund, with each donation being matched dollar for dollar by a generous benefactor. Any amount will make a difference.
To donate, please click on the image below.