Shelly Power is currently Administrator of Houston Ballet Academy and is also a dance instructor and member of the Academy's artistic faculty. Ms. Power received her
training as a scholarship student at Boston Ballet, Harkness Ballet, and
Houston Ballet. She has danced in several Houston Ballet productions, is the originator of Houston Ballet's educational program, Talent Search, and creator of the first Teacher's Training seminar at Houston Ballet. Ms. Power has owned two studios in the Houston area and has also danced with several jazz and modern dance companies in Houston. The London Times has called Houston Ballet "one of America's most vibrant ballet companies."
Jerseyworks: What was the spark that first keyed your interest in dance, and where and when did you begin to study?
Ms. Power: I noticed a small local studio-- Southbridge School of Ballet-- in my hometown of Southbridge, Mass. When I visited my grandmother's beauty salon, I used to peek in the window next door and watch classes. One day the teacher, Cathy Daly, asked me to come in and it was love at first sight.
Were you a "natural"?
Ms. Daly says I was.
What was your regimen, and how did you achieve what you did?
I started classes at age seven and took one class a week for a year. After that it is all a blur. I can remember at age ten dancing from three in the afternoon until eight-thirty at night four nights a week and then all day on Saturday. After winning a scholarship at Boston Ballet at age eleven, my teacher added one day a week in Boston. She drove me to Boston, by the way. My Mom worked and was not able to drive me, nor did she understand why she would need to.
Has ballet continued to be a lifelong passion?
I cannot seem to get away from dance, so I suppose it has.
Jerseyworks: Describe for us the highest moment of your life as a performer.
It was most certainly being asked to dance in the corps as a swan in Swan Lake. For most this might not seem like a big deal; however, I did not get to train at a big company like Boston Ballet for very long. My teacher left teaching in my small town and I was on my own for training during most of high school, and without the resource of traveling in to Boston, my training suffered. It was not until I was twenty years old that I was able to go to New York City and then Houston to train. It was against all odds that I would make it into a professional company….most students were fourteen and fifteen years old in my classes. The fact that I was able to dance at Houston Ballet in any capacity is amazing and will always be cherished!
Jerseyworks: What is the relation of Houston Ballet Academy to the company and its productions?
Houston Ballet Academy trains dancers for the company and is the official school of Houston Ballet under the artistic direction of Ben Stevenson. Seventy-five percent of Houston Ballet dancers have spent time training in the Academy. When Mr. Stevenson came to Houston he made it clear to the search committee that he wanted a strong school that would feed dancers into the professional company. He did not want a company of stars that were imported in from other cities. He wanted the company to represent the community. This has been the strength behind the school. Students in upper levels in the Academy have many opportunities to dance with the company in ballets such as Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Pied Piper, Cleopatra and Cinderella. Mr. Stevenson believes this experience should be part of their training.
Tell us about your job as a dance instructor and Administrator of Houston Ballet Academy. What are your responsibilities and what is a typical day like for you?
Lately, my job responsibilities have led to more administrative work, rather than teaching. I am very passionate about creating a training process for dancers that meets the needs of the whole dancer and supports the human spirit of the dancer. Therefore, I have been creating policies that support those needs. Policies that touch on the delicate subjects of preventing eating disorders and injuries. I believe we are one of the first professional training facilities that has a full time student counselor who address the needs of our dancers. We have become concerned with our students' education, and we work hard to prepare our students for their futures as dancers and beyond. Just as important is the issue of students who "don't make the cut," so to speak, and how they make that transition.
How many students are enrolled, and how do students come to be in the Academy?
The Academy has 385 students enrolled in the main school (ages four to twenty) and 150 in the Adult/Open class program. We begin with Creative Dance for four and five-year-olds. Dancers from ages seven to eighteen must audition for the pre-professional program, and then they are invited into the professional level program.
Are the students all highly motivated?
Students who participate in our main school program vary in motivation and commitment, as they should. At this stage, they are trying to find their way and are trying to decide if the "dance path" is what they truly want. Once they have decided that this is the path they want, usually around ages of fourteen to sixteen, they are highly motivated, of course. Dance students in general are usually self-motivated and focused.
What is their inspiration?
What a good question…. Inspiration comes in many different packages and usually stems from where the student's motivation to dance came from in the first place. If a student has an honest motivation to dance, meaning they cannot "NOT" dance, the love for dance and passion is their motivation. They are typically inspired by the long lineage of dancers who danced before them perhaps in the same roles they are learning now. Dancers are also inspired when they work with their contemporaries and venture into new roles.
What comprises the long training of a professional dancer, and how do students maintain their drive for the number of years this achievement takes?
Dancers compromise their bodies, their personal lives, and their educations, because dance is all-encompassing. This is what makes dancers so special. When they are on stage, you look at them and realize how much they have given up for you...for that moment, as they have the opportunity to change you, move you or entertain you. The percentage of time in the class room and rehearsal room far exceeds the time on stage, and dancers realize this as they get closer and closer to committing themselves to the long haul. Students' love and passion is what helps them maintain their drive. Dance calls many different walks of life, but I believe if you were to study the personality types of dancers, you would find like qualities. Dancers are perfectionists; determined individuals, very focused, and possess high tolerances for physical stress.
What do you think is involved, what are the keys to achieving the highest levels in ballet or in any art?
Total commitment to oneself and one's dream. A healthy dancer will attempt to balance their life with dance and an outside life with some time dedicated to the next phase of their life. They must always be preparing for the next phase. Dancers must have a strong self-will and at the same time the willingness to venture into physical and mental capacities that perhaps the average person fears. Dancers must also know their limits, and sometimes this is hard to recognize when they give so much of themselves to the art form.
How much of the self does it take?
Sometimes they have to give all of "self" and try to balance it off with a somewhat normal life. In other words, dancers must be prepared to be somewhat self-absorbed as they are training, although in today's world we encourage them to create a life around dance as well. This makes for a healthier person, dancer, employee and student.
Does anybody have it easy?
First define "easy." Mr. Stevenson has always said that it takes ninety percent work and ten percent talent. It does help to have the genetic disposition, however. Having a body for ballet that can adhere to the needs of ballet is important; flexibility, good arches and high insteps in the feet, a quick mind and a generous physical memory, all help to make the journey a little easier, I suppose. Genetics is something we can't change (not yet anyway) and it does weigh heavily in your success in dance these days. Other dance forms are more forgiving as to the needs of the dancer's body, such as modern dance, although this can be argued as well. Modern dance pushes the body in a different way.
Say something about your own teachers.
My first teacher, Cathy Daly, was tough, but inspiring. She made me want
to be better and gave me a lot of encouragement.
Cathy Daly taught me the meaning of commitment, hard work, and most of all
that there was this big world outside just waiting for me. She taught me
about choices and adventures. She was also responsible for my first exposure
to professional dance. We saw the Bolshoi Ballet perform in Boston in the
late 1960's, and after the performance she brought me to the stage door where
they were handing out dancer autographed pointe shoes.
Another of my early teachers, Virginia Williams, Artistic Director of Boston Ballet, was of the old school of teaching and was
also very tough, and I can remember being very scared of her as a small child. She made us work, however.
In high school I studied with Debbie Sichol of Debbie Sichol's Dance School.
Debbie gave me the gift of teaching. I found my love of teaching and she
encouraged me to teach and it was there I had my first paid teaching job.
The instruction that I experienced later, in my early twenties, led me to my own
analysis of training and helped me to understand my own body at a different
level. Reneta Exter of Harkness Ballet taught me how to turn ( to execute
pirouettes) and to find an inner strength to push myself. Harkness was also
my first experience dancing with a male partner. I was scared to death!
At Houston Ballet, Fred Strobel taught me pure technique and Ben
Stevenson used incredible analogies which helped me to understand movement
in a way I had never experienced. Clara Cravey's classes were always so
"dancy" and she really got you moving and Clare Duncan brought Modern dance
to my training with her great knowledge of Martha Graham technique,
which led me to dance in a Modern dance company later on.
What makes a great dance teacher?
There is a delicate line of knowing when to push and when to let up. A good teacher has intuition in this knowing and keeps a keen eye on the progress of each individual and treats them accordingly to what level they are at any given time.
Talk a little about the company's current and upcoming productions.
We have a busy and varied season ahead. The Cullen Contemporary Series will feature four choreographers from Houston Ballet. Ben Stevenson nurtures his dancers by offering them the opportunity to grow not only as dancers, but also as choreographers and teachers. Our next program will be Nutcracker and we will end the holiday season with The "Nutty" Nutcracker. This is a tradition that is a spoof on Nutcracker and integrates with the fun events of the year. Of course this year may be a little difficult, but it will be light and fun regardless. Cleopatra and a world premiere of Peter Pan will be presented in March. It is really exciting to be a part of a full-length ballet such as Cleopatra. Sitting in the audience of Cleopatra, I could only imagine what it was like one hundred years ago, to be a part of a world premiere such as Romeo and Juliet or Coppelia. Mr. Stevenson's ballet will be performed for years to come and being a part of this history is most rewarding. Lastly, there will be another world premiere by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir and also George Balanchine's Serenade and former Paul Taylor dancer Lila York's Rules of the Game in May, and then the season will finish with the classic Don Quixote.
Does Houston Ballet have a particular style or direction as compared to other dance companies?
Ben Stevenson tends to lean toward a very clean classical style; however, the company is very versatile. Mr. Stevenson makes sure that he chooses dancers that can perform his style as well as many other styles. In 1989, he named Sir Kenneth MacMillan artistic associate and Christopher Bruce as resident choreographer, bringing a very different style to the company. Mr. Stevenson is known for having a versatile repertoire, and dancers come from all over the world to dance in this company.
Is New York City Ballet at the leading edge of ballet in the United States, or are things of equal interest happening around the country?
New York City Ballet is the largest company, with a budget of over $40 million. Although it is hard to compare companies by budgets because of the cost of living and different economic climates, New York City Ballet has a longer history and following.
What are some of the other major directions in dance today other than classical ballet?
Dance has become much more athletic than in the past. Dancers today are quite versatile in their training and abilities and have to be, to be marketable. These expectations can sometimes be dangerous for the dancer. I believe we as an industry are addressing these issues as we see dancers' bodies are sometimes pushed to dangerous limits. We know much more than we did twenty years ago, and we are trying to adjust training, choreography and our ways of thinking, which can be a challenge. Houston Ballet does not necessarily have an issue with dangerous choreography, and our dancers are quite protected by union rules. Smaller companies work under different conditions, which can cause problems, especially with no workmen's compensation protection.
Who do you think is doing interesting choreography today?
I think it is amazing to see Mr. Stevenson create full-length ballets. There are very few choreographers creating full-length ballets these days. Stanton Welch, an Australian, and Christopher Bruce, of England, are truly gifted choreographers and tend to be more contemporary artists. Trey McIntyre is an up and coming American contemporary choreographer who is setting works all over the world now. Houston Ballet's own Priscilla Nathan Murphy, a principal instructor in the Academy, is also evolving into an interesting and thought-provoking choreographer and is branching out nation wide as well.
We know that you sometimes travel in your job and that you have in recent years been a judge of dance in both Princeton and New York. What has been your capacity in those visits?
In my quest to teach students in a way that supports their human spirit, I have adjudicated many dance competitions in the for-profit dance world. The for-profit dance world consists of what we call "studio schools," meaning non-professional schools. This part of the industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Controversial competitions, which make some businesses a lot of money, have created a performing venue for students. My goal is to give encouragement to all dancers who choose to participate in these dance competitions, but in a way that is truthful, supportive and constructive while keeping in mind that most of them will not be dancing professionally in the future.
What kind of dance do you respond to most strongly now?
Dance must move me, it must strike an emotion. It must also be done in a way that communicates and makes a connection to the audience. I don't like a performer to be self absorbed. The dance must be for all of us. There must be a delicate balance within the dancer to connect with the audience and be a part of and feeling the role at the same time.
How does dance uniquely communicate as an art?
I think it is the fact that the movement touches our emotions in a unique and different way for each one of us. Words can be so literal at times where dance leaves so much more room for an individual's own experience. We may or may not get the exact interpretation of the movement, yet the movement in itself can be executed in a way that strikes your emotions. Maybe it is the direct experience of dance that I love so much. When I leave a performance I like to feel as though I have just experienced something, not just observed it.
How is ballet financed in America?
Individual and institutional giving (corporations, individuals, foundations, endowments), ticket sales, federal and state funding. With the current events of September 11th, all dance companies are feeling the stress of donors who are diverting funds to New York City, and rightfully so. However, the cumulative stress of the disaster and the declining economy will affect our budgets and our decisions for years to come.
What is the level of audiences' knowledge and appreciation of dance and ballet?
Ballet audiences have typically been white, upper income level members of society. We as an industry are trying to break this trend, and we have entered into the education sector to create a wider and more representative audience-- that is, an audience that better represents our diverse society. Houston Ballet presently has one of the most ethnically diverse companies in America. Our audience is changing as our company grows and diversifies. Also, we are working on educating the public earlier through many elementary school programs. We hope to integrate the values of dance into education on an academic level, as music has done. There are task forces working to create school curriculums, and they are developing ways to measure these efforts which will be helpful for future funding.
How do you see the future of the world of dance?
The dance world is changing rapidly and I think it is exciting and challenging. Until we help the general public understand dance on an intellectual and emotional level, we will struggle to build audiences that look different than they do now. We must work to identify the values of dance and integrate them in to the fabric of society as a part of our culture.
Are there changes you would like to make or that you see happening?
Change is difficult, especially in an art form that is three hundred years old. I would like those of us in the field to continue to adjust this critical art form to fit the very different nature of our society while maintaining a high level and standard for the art form. Not all students will dance professionally, and we must support each student as a human being whether they enter the non-dance world or a related field, having learned the many different life skills and values that are inherently available through dance training. We need to carefully devise ways to accomplish this by looking at the whole student and the whole person as we try to mold them into the shape of a dancer and a human being.