Australian-born Stanton Welch started dancing in his mid-teens and earned a scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. He began a professional dance career with The Australian Ballet in 1989 and received his first choreographic commission from that company in 1990. Over the next 14 years he created numerous ballets there and was named resident choreographer in 1995. He has also received commissions from American Ballet Theatre, Atlanta Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, among other companies. His Madame Butterfly has become his signature work and is in the repertoires of numerous international companies. In 2003 he assumed artistic directorship of Houston Ballet. While working on his world premiere for the New Works Festival, he talked about the steep learning curve involved in starting his dance career after childhood, and his ongoing relationship with San Francisco Ballet.
BACKSTAGE: You started dancing at the relatively mature age of 17. What sparked your interest then?
WELCH: Both my parents were dancers, so I had been around ballet a lot, and therefore I think had gotten kind of tired of it as an idea of a place to work. So I just had no interest in ballet, other than to watch it as an audience member. And then I found the more distance I got from it, the more I actually wanted to do it myself. My mother was artistic director of the Australian Ballet, but she stopped that when I was about 14. So then from 14 to 17, we were just audience members, and that's when I fell in love with ballet from an audience perspective, which made me want to dance and create.
BACKSTAGE: And so when you started dancing, were you the oldest person in some of your beginning dance classes?
WELCH: Believe it or not, no. So that was good. But definitely, I was always at least a year above my contemporaries. But I also would go back and do lower-level classes and try to boost myself up. So the first year I had of training—which was at my parents' ballet school—was very intense, from 9 in the morning until 7:30 at night. Lots of classes, lots of basic technique, private lessons to try to catch my vocabulary up. I was physically lucky because of my parents—pedigree-wise, my body was in the right position and limber enough. I always felt a little bit behind, but not that much older.
BACKSTAGE: So with such the steep learning curve at the beginning, you were really putting in a lot of time.
WELCH: Oh yeah, because when I went to Mum and said, "I think I want to do ballet," her reaction was, "It's too late. You needed to do this before." I only had a year left before college, and I was doing very well in school and I'd really had no interest in ballet. So it was out of right field. And she just said, "You have six weeks to prove yourself in the break of school, and if in that time you show progression and the dedication that you'll need to achieve a professional career at this age." And I guess I did. And then I stayed there for a year, and I won a scholarship in Australia, and I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken and made enough money to come here, to San Francisco Ballet School, and then I was here for a year and a couple of months.
BACKSTAGE: Before that, before age 17, you really hadn't taken any classes at all?
WELCH: No, nothing. A class when I was about 7, once, which apparently I cried and left. And my little brother stayed in there, also crying—he had no interest in ballet. And then as soon as I left to go to San Francisco, he began ballet, and he was about 15 at that time. But yeah, no, nothing. A jazz class, maybe once or twice in that whole time. I was always trying to find an interest in—or Mum was always trying to find an interest in us—in movement. But I was much more concentrated on acting and had done a lot of acting classes and things like that, but dance movement was not my thing.
BACKSTAGE: Within four years of starting to dance, you were choreographing, is that right?
WELCH: Pretty much, actually, it was the first year I choreographed, because in the school—in my parents' school—choreography was part of our curriculum, so we each had to do a ballet, and I enjoyed it. And actually the piece I had done was commissioned by a small youth company in Queensland, and I ended up doing about six or seven ballets in that first year. And then when I went to San Francisco, I just had fun here and danced, I didn't choreograph at all. And then I went home [to Australia] and started doing pieces for schools again, and then it was the fourth year that I had my first professional engagement.
BACKSTAGE: I was going to ask if you had a particular mentor or inspiration for your choreography, but that was probably your parents.
WELCH: It is to a degree, but there are many. I became a dresser for the Australian ballet just before I started dancing, so I was around the theater a lot, and I watched many ballets in that time, and they were the people that really burned into my brain, like Jirí Kylián and Glen Tetley, MacMillan, Cranko, Balanchine, Robbins … this was sort of the repertoire of the Australian Ballet at that time. And they also did a lot of storytelling ballets—Merry Widow, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Anna Karenina, Three Musketeers—lots of big storytelling. I think that that was my melting pot of inspiration.
BACKSTAGE: What is the ballet that you have choreographed that you are most proud of, and what do you like about it? Or which one do you get most excited about when you see it again?
WELCH: Obviously I don't have one. It's like children or pets. You have to be—well, you don't have to be, but I feel almost equally in love with each of them. Even the troubled ones. You know, you want to help them—what was wrong with this, and why can't I make this work. They all have a part of you, and I always feel like the one I love the most is the one that I'm currently working on.
BACKSTAGE: You've choreographed in Australia, as well. Do you observe any difference in working with dancers there versus dancers in the United States?
WELCH: I'd worked in England too, and a little bit in Europe; there is a very big difference I think culturally in each country. What Australians and Americans share, I think, is an extreme gutsiness to their dance. I think that what I was amazed [by] when I came here and saw San Francisco Ballet dance for the first time was how fast they were and how much space they used, and that was just so astounding, and that was something I hadn't really seen in Australia. I think of the Australian dancers of the time that I was in the country were very great partners and big machismo men dancing, and that was something that was very uniquely Australian at that time—kind of a bravery, a sense of death or dance, sort of thing. But I do actually think that Australians and Americans are, probably—out of my experience, anyway—the most similar, in the fact that they really will give everything to the dance, and that's great as a choreographer to work with that.
BACKSTAGE: What intrigued you about coming here to participate in the New Works Festival?
WELCH: I just always love working here, and you know, I admire Helgi so much. I think he's truly one of the legends of artistic directorships in the world. And I've been lucky enough to see it from a school perspective and come here as a choreographer of many years, and [I've] seen so many extraordinary dancers. It's just always a pleasure to come back. Also, I know all the people who are choreographing as well, and that's lovely, too. It's like a family reunion.
BACKSTAGE: Are there any surprises the audience can expect from your piece for the New Works Festival?
WELCH: I hope so! I hope so—I don't know. I decided to do something very classical. I have sort of been inching my way, I guess, with my work here toward more and more classical vocabulary, and this time I really wanted to do something very pure and from my heritage, so that it also would help balance the program. We each need to bring something that is uniquely ourselves, and I think that's why Helgi has asked us all, so I wanted to present that.
BACKSTAGE: Did you have a particular inspiration for what you brought to it?
WELCH: For me, it's really music-based, this ballet. I took five couples, and they're in tutus, and I really wanted to work within a very classical vocabulary and find and capture what I felt was the spirit of each of those sections of music.
BACKSTAGE: This is the fifth piece you have created for San Francisco Ballet. How has your relationship with the dancers evolved in your time working with them, and have you observed any major changes in the way the company works?
WELCH: It's funny, a lot of them are people that I've worked with in all five, which is wonderful—to return to an artist and keep painting with their color, if that makes sense. That's what's so wonderful. I always find when you come, your first instinct is, "Oh, I'd want to do a ballet with about 50 people in it, because there are 50 people I'd like to choreograph on." And you have to trim that down, realistically. But it's exciting, it's always exciting, because there's always such an international collection of dancers, and not dancers that are out to be recognized as an individual as much as be a part of a great ballet, and that's a really wonderful thing. And that's something that's unique to what Helgi's created here, is this hunger to want to be in creation.
BACKSTAGE: How does your position as artistic director of Houston Ballet inform the way you work as a choreographer?
WELCH: It's interesting, I guess—they're very different worlds. It's very hard to balance them. As a choreographer, you need to remain inspired by the dancers and by the people, and even though it's not a relationship in such that you need to be their friend, you need to want to work with them and they need to want to work with you, and that's what creates the energy. As a director, often you're the person who has to deliver bad news or restriction, and you become the bad guy in many ways, and I think that that is a difficult balancing act. You certainly appreciate the artistic directors that you've met before a lot more once you become one, I'll tell you that.