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In Fort Worth, celebrating the ballet legend Ben Stevenson

Texas Ballet Theater's "Dracula," choreographed by Ben Stevenson
Steven Visneau
Texas Ballet Theater
Texas Ballet Theater's "Dracula," choreographed by Ben Stevenson, is being revived to open TBT's new season - with Carl Coomer in the title role.

The Texas Ballet Theater opens its new season Friday — the first season in 20 years with a new artistic director, Tim O'Keefe. But O'Keefe is opening it with Dracula, a ballet choreographed by Ben Stevenson, the man who has shaped the company since 2003.

So clearly, there's continuity in this changeover. In fact, Stevenson continues as director laureate, and O'Keefe was the first to dance the title role in Dracula.

"That's one of the great things having something choreographed on you," O'Keefe said. "Ben will make you look good."

Each season Stevenson was in charge, he offered lavish ballets like Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella.

Houston arts critic Molly Glentzer covered Stevenson when he ran the Houston Ballet and brought the company to national prominence. She said Stevenson is a master of the traditional story ballet.

"One of his great strengths as a choreographer is his ability to put together these structured, classical ballets -- with amazing production values," Glentzer said. "He knew all the very best people of his generation in the set and costume design world."

Stevenson is a master of these, Glentzer said, partly because when he came to Texas — first to the Houston Ballet in 1976, then to Fort Worth in 2003 — he had something no other ballet director in the state had. Glentzer called it "lineage" -- a direct connection to the originators of modern ballet.

Texas Ballet Theater's "Alice in Wonderland," choreographed by Ben Stevenson in 2017, revived in 2023
Amitava Sarkar
Texas Ballet Theater
Texas Ballet Theater's "Alice in Wonderland," choreographed by Ben Stevenson in 2017, revived in 2023

A great lineage

"He had worked with some of the great dancers with the Ballets Russe," Glentzer said. "And that tradition really seeped into his work. So he really elevated the artistry."

In 1999, Stevenson was named an Officer in the Order of the British Empire (the OBE) — precisely because of his preserving and updating the classical English ballet tradition throughout the world.

Case in point: While directing the Houston Ballet in New York in 1978, Stevenson danced with the Broadway great Gwen Verdonin Facade. It was originally choreographed in 1923 by Sir Frederick Ashton — the founder of the Royal Opera Ballet — and later danced by Margot Fonteyn.

The New York Times called Stevenson's recreation of Facade with Verdon "two pros in a total success."

Dance is what propelled a young man from Portsmouth, England, to London, to the Royal Ballet, the English Ballet, to musical productions in London's West End.

Ben Stevenson performing with Gwen Verdon in Facade (1978)
Texas Ballet Theater
Ben Stevenson performing with Gwen Verdon in "Facade" with the Houston Ballet, 1978. The duet was a staple of the Royal Ballet, originally choreographed and performed by Sir Frederick Ashton.

After that, well, you name it. Stevenson has choreographed in Paris and Beijing. The National Ballet at the Kennedy Center. The Joffrey Ballet in New York. La Scala in Milan. He worked with Fonteyn, one of the 20th century's great ballerinas. He taught Jane Seymour dance when the Hollywood star was 13.

Ben Stevenson in London
Texas Ballet Theater
Ben Stevenson in "Sleeping Beauty" with the London Festival Ballet

The stories he could tell

All of which means — Stevenson has some stories: "I mean, I've got all my Shirley MacLaine stories. I've got my Elton John stories. You don't know who she is. Do you not know who Shirley MacLaine is? Do you know who Elton John is?"

Actually, when it comes to Hollywood, Stevenson is one of the very rare choreographers in the world to be portrayed as a character in a studio film: Mao's Last Dancer from 2009.

In the late '70s, Stevenson was teaching at the Beijing Dance Academy when he met Li Cunxin. Li was one of two students eventually granted a scholarship to the Houston Ballet academy. After his training in Texas, he defected to the West — triggering an international incident. He became a leading dancer with the Houston company. And in the 2009 film, based on Li's memoir, Stevenson is played by Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood.

Ben Stevenson and Li Cunxin
Texas Ballet Theater
Ben Stevenson and the Chinese dancer, Li Cunxin, whose memoir, "Mao's Last Dancer," became the 2009 film of the same name.

After all of this — and after all the productions of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake — when asked to name a signature piece of his, Stevenson doesn't choose a classic title.

It's Dracula.

"Four Last Songs" with music by Richard Strauss
Amitava Sarkar
Texas Ballet Theater
"Four Last Songs" with music by Richard Strauss


That's not a title one normally associates with classical ballet. Cheesy horror spin-offs, yes.

But Stevenson "wants to get people in the theater," O'Keefe said. "So he wants that instant name recognition."

Narrative is a choreographic tool that modern dance pioneers have often jettisoned. You won't find anything like a connect-the-dances storyline with Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch or William Forsythe. They all started with blank slates. They've improvised their way to some other organizing principle.

But if creating from scratch is hard, telling a story — even with centuries of narrative traditions to lean on —telling a story with no words, using only movement and music, is not easy, either.

Dancing is fundamentally a form of theater, Stevenson has said. And dancers must learn to act. "Other choreographers are very intimidated by narrative," said O'Keefe. "But Ben has a very theatrical background. He enjoys telling a story through dance."

Story ballets like Dracula are hardly all that Stevenson has done — they're just the bigger extravaganzas. Tellingly, perhaps, his other notable efforts are seemingly spare, elegant pieces, very classical in their way -- until suddenly they're not. These are dances such as Four Last Songs with music by Richard Strauss and Three Preludes by Rachmaninoff.

"It's truly one of his masterpieces," O'Keefe said of Three Preludes. "I mean, no matter what your medium, when you have something that transcends — I mean, you just happen to be dancing, but it becomes much more about the relationship between the two people."

Still dancing, through others

At 87, Stevenson still finds dance as fundamental as breathing.

"I think dance is exciting," he said. "Movement is exciting. And without movement, we couldn't walk. And I've loved dance and being part of it. I'd like to spread that around Fort Worth and Dallas."

As much as he's a leading storyteller with dance, Stevenson has preserved and extended the traditions of ballet through teaching. Ballet, said O'Keefe, is the basis of dance education, and Stevenson has been one of the great ballet teachers. Even in that New York Times review of Facade in 1978, Stevenson's "high standards of classical training" were cited. Since then, he's established dance academies in both Houston and Fort Worth. The one in Houston is named after him. It's considered one of the country's finest.

All of this in order to pass on the training he'd received. And to elevate the artistry of his companies on stage.

But also, as Stevenson said -- for himself.

"I still feel I'm dancing -- but through other people."

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.