The Houston Ballet:
A Company with Principles
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul” – Martha Graham
Ballet, which is based on a series of technically exacting and athletic steps performed together with graceful movement, has been with us since the 1500s. On its own, each step brings with it a technical factor that must be mastered to perform it correctly. This takes many hours of effort on the part of teachers and students working together toward the same goal. Combined, the steps create a dance. When joined with the heartfelt movement of the body, they tell a story.
Everyone at the Houston Ballet understands the importance of the legacy they work with every day. The company’s history illustrates its commitment to providing a thriving ballet community in the city of Houston. In 1955, the Houston Ballet Academy was founded by Tatiana Semenova. The professional company was established under the direction of Nina Popova in 1969. Today, the Houston Ballet, the fourth largest ballet company in the United States, is internationally recognized. Under the directorship of Stanton Welch, the acclaimed Australian choreographer, the Houston Ballet lives up to its mission statement, which is “to inspire a lasting love and appreciation for dance through artistic excellence, exhilarating performances, innovative choreography and superb educational programs.” In 2011, the company cemented its commitment to making ballet a vital part of the Houston community by opening the six-story Houston Ballet Center for Dance.
Dedication to Education
Learning ballet can have all sorts of positive effects on children. It promotes physical strength and agility, boosts concentration, and nurtures a love of movement and understanding of rhythm. Ballet is also good for social development. Not only does it get children with a shared interest together in an activity they enjoy, it also engenders teamwork and impresses upon them the importance of working together to accomplish a goal. The Houston Ballet understands what a positive experience ballet training can be. For over fifty years, the teachers and directors have invited children of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds to come dance with them. Their noble goals are to introduce children to the beauty of life through dance, introduce dance education to those in under-served and at risk populations, and instill independence and confidence in students.
In support of these objectives, the company provides programs for schools as well as for communities. Many are free. Here are some examples of the programs available at the elementary, middle, and high school levels:
Ballet: Theme and Variation
Ballet Talks: Docents provide one-hour presentations based on The Nutcracker, Peter Pan, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.
Dance to Learn: Core curriculum is approached from a kinesthetic perspective providing an arts integration program.
Learning from the Masters: Professionals teach dance classes in a variety of disciplines. As well as the educational services the Houston Ballet offers to schools, it extends its community commitment with Adapted Dance, which takes existing programs to populations with specific needs. Two Adapted Dance programs are currently available: “Autism-Friendly My First Ballet” and “Dance for Parkinson’s.”
Dedication to Success
From the beginning, the Houston Ballet founders understood the importance of having their own academy to train the company’s dancers. Since it was founded in 1955, the Houston Ballet Academy has been fostering the abilities and love of dance within its students by providing the best training available. Currently, over 500 students between the ages of four and sixty are being taught how to jeté, pirouette, and do a pas de chat (step of the cat) at the academy. What a testament this is to the benefit and attraction of ballet to children and adults alike. More than half of the company’s dancers come from here. A better endorsement to the quality of its training couldn’t be given.
The academy’s program is designed to introduce students to the art of ballet and then take them through a full course of study. This means enriching their lives with classes in technique, pointe work, pas de deux, men’s technique, character dance, and music. Character dance is especially fun for children, introducing them to dances like the polka and the tarantella, which are performed in different cultures around the world.
There is also a summer intensive program that welcomes students from the United States and around the world to join in the fun. Students in the summer program don’t just learn how to dance. Thanks to a collaboration with the American Festival for the Arts (AFA) Summer Music Conservatory, they have the opportunity to stretch their creative abilities and choreograph movement to music composed by students in the AFA program. Many of those who graduate go on to join international ballet companies.
Not everyone who studies ballet will become a professional ballet dancer. The academy is aware of that, too, which is why it opens its doors to anyone with the desire to learn and experience the process of putting movement to music. Those whose paths lead in other directions gain a tremendous amount from having studied at Houston Ballet Academy. Along with the benefits of dance training mentioned earlier, they develop self-motivation, self discipline, and physical dexterity.
Dedication to Serve
Houston Ballet Principal Dancer Yuriko Kajiya and Houston Ballet Director of Education & Community Engagement, Jennifer Sommers serve the population of Houston from two unique vantage points: one from the stage, the other in the community.
Kajiya, whose astonishing prowess can take your breath away, joined Houston Ballet in 2014. Her transformative performances thrill audiences and encourage them to return time and again to experience the remarkable beauty and passion of the art form. As someone who cares about her audience, Kajiya gives back by being an inspiration and role model to all, including those just beginning their journey through dance.
Sommers joined Houston Ballet in 2010. She holds an MFA in Dance, Performance, and Choreography from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Before joining Houston Ballet, Sommers held various positions, including that of Associate Director of Raleigh Dance Theatre; faculty member of the University of Minnesota, Morris; and founding dance teacher at KIPP Sharpstown Middle School.
It was with great pleasure that CKW Luxe spoke to both Yuriko Kajiya and Jennifer Sommers about the Houston Ballet, their love of dance, and the unique manner in which each shares their talent with Houstonians.
Interview with Yuriko Kajiya
CKW Luxe: Houston Ballet is a world-renowned company. Please tell us what you think it brings to the City of Houston and the opportunities it has afforded you.
Yuriko Kajiya: The city of Houston is one of the biggest in the country, therefore, its ballet organization is at the top and represents a standard in the world. Being a principal dancer comes with a lot of responsibility. You are representing not only yourself, but the ballet you’re a part of and the company itself. In general, as a ballet dancer, it is not simply to dance, but to interpret and present an art form while staying true to its creation. Sharing my gift of ballet with the world allows me to be a part of people’s lives and give something back to them.
CKW: Please tell our readers when you first discovered your passion for ballet, what it is about the art form you love, and when you decided to commit your life to it.
YK: I was born in Japan, but at ten I moved to China and began training at the Shanghai Ballet School. It wasn’t until after I started to enter competitions, and got exposed to the music and beautiful costumes, that I fell in love with ballet. I was no longer only posing, but dancing, and making an emotional connection with each movement.
The real turning point for me was when I represented China at a world-renowned ballet competition in Switzerland. I saw many talented students from all over the world performing, and their passion and beauty pulled me in. That day made me realize that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
CKW: You bring the joy of ballet to Houstonians from the stage. What reciprocal benefits do you and the audience share from that perspective?
YK: Performing art and watching from the audience is a two-way street. Making ballet look effortless, when it is so challenging, allows me to give the audience a unique experience. Practicing in the studio is always special, but to actually perform in front of an audience is even more so, because magic happens. At some point in the show, we all become one, and in that moment I know everyone is getting something they need. Dancing ballet is worth it, because I get to share my art, my movement, and my expression of that particular piece with the world.
Interview with Jennifer Sommers
CKW Luxe: Please tell our readers a little bit about your role as Houston Ballet Director of Education & Community Engagement.
Jennifer Sommers: As director, I oversee all our programs, which are divided into three categories. First, are the Expose Programs, where student participants become audience members at student matinees for greatly discounted prices. Second, are the Educate Programs, which focus on students learning dance technique and acquiring dance skills. Third, are the Integrate Programs. One example is “Dance to Learn,” in which students explore an academic subject, like social studies, through creative movement. We also work with teachers through this program so they can use creative movement as an educational tool.
CKW: How did ballet become part of your life, and what was the path that led you to this unique position?
JS: Ballet became part of my life by mistake. Because the mother of a friend of mine signed my friend up for ballet classes, my mother signed me up. The small regional company I became part of in Massachusetts afforded me lots of opportunities. My love of the art form continued throughout college. Dance careers have many pathways, and mine led me to dance education.
My life changed when I moved to Houston and became the founding dance teacher at KIPP Sharpstown Middle School. I was there for two years, during which time I learned how studio dance translates into a public school setting. When I came to Houston Ballet, the Education & Community Engagement program already existed, but it was smaller.
CKW: You bring the joy of ballet to Houstonians by working with them in the community. What reciprocal benefits do you share with them from that perspective?
JS: Movement is life, joy, and self-expression. We benefit from it in a myriad of different ways. When I teach, I feel connected to the kids I’m working with. When they are joyfully engaged, it’s amazing. Our whole staff is committed to making sure, by targeting the communities who need it the most, all Houstonians are exposed to the joy of ballet.
The Houston Ballet is an organization that believes in the legacy of the art form and understands that to keep the legacy alive as many people as possible within its community must be reached. It also believes everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to learn to dance and experience the delight that comes from putting centuries-old steps to music recreating the traditional stories as well as creating new ones. By opening its doors, and by taking programs to schools and the community, the Houston Ballet ensures ballet reaches everyone who needs it.