In downtown Houston’s Theater District, the Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance shines under the Texas sun. This 115,000-square-foot performance space, designed by Gensler, opened in 2011 as the home of the Houston Ballet and remains the largest professional dance facility in the United States.
It’s been 55 years since the Houston Ballet was established in 1969, and today, it is the fourth-largest ballet company in the country. The 2023-2024 season also marks the 20th anniversary of its visionary artistic director, Stanton Welch, who was joined by Julie Kent as a joint artistic director in the summer of 2023.
During his tenure, Welch has boldly steered the Houston Ballet into an ambitious new era, telling innovative stories for modern audiences and elevating the company’s reputation across the globe, while commissioning internationally renowned choreographers such as Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and the Canadian Aszure Barton, to create new works. Choreographer Dwight Rhoden is the latest guest to come onboard, and his much-anticipated, yet-to-be-titled ballet will make its world premiere in June.
Nurturing a love of dance in future generations is a priority for this trailblazing Texas arts organization, as evidenced through its education and community engagement program, which reaches more than 85,000 individuals in the Houston area every year. Lauren Anderson, a native Houstonian who became the Houston Ballet’s first Black principal dancer in 1990, is the associate director of education and community engagement, spearheading outreach initiatives and free dance programming in Houston-area schools.
During a recent practice at the Center for Dance, light poured through the wide picture windows as scores of dancers rehearsed in the nine studios. Afterward, many of the dancers headed to the onsite clinic, where they had access to trainers, physical therapists, nutritionists, and mental health resources. The clinic, part of the Houston Methodist Center for Performing Arts Medicine, is one of the only arts-related medical centres of its kind in North America.
Houston’s Center for Dance is also home to a large music library, a chaperoned dormitory for student dancers, and an expansive costume shop. Sandra Fox, the head of costumes at the Houston Ballet, manages the team of creative seamstresses and talented wigmakers who bring the detailed sets and intricate ensembles to life. The shop is filled with colour from spools of thread and bolts of rainbow fabric, while boxes of point shoes are stacked alongside rolling racks stuffed with Nutcracker snowflakes and costumes.
Downstairs, visitors can learn more about the artists and inner workings of the city’s ballet in the 200-odd-seat Dance Lab, which is used for presentations including the free Dance Talks lecture series.
Over the past 20 years, Welch’s dedication to the company has been pivotal in cementing Houston as a global hub for world-class ballet. Now, as he and Kent look ahead, they feel nothing but anticipation and promise for the future. “People don’t have any idea we have one of the biggest stages in the country,” Welch says. “We want to show the world that we have a full, thriving academy and tremendous dancers.”