We are so happy to have Jennifer Sommers from Houston Ballet with us this semester. Jennifer serves as the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Houston Ballet. In this rare opportunity, Houston Ballet is opening their doors to go “Behind the Scenes at Houston Ballet” and see the creation of a classic ballet, Coppélia. WIH spoke with Jennifer to learn more about the process of taking a production from the studio to the stage.
WIH Reporter: How many months in advance does the ballet start working on a production? Has producing Coppélia had any challenges in regards to this? What excites you about this particular ballet?
Sommers: As you may know, our performance home, the Wortham Theater Center, was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Last year, we took our season on a “Hometown Tour.” This year, we are thrilled to be back at the Wortham, but while we normally open our season in September, we were unable to get back until The Nutcracker in November. That means that we are doing 6 productions between February 21st and June 23rd! The dancers have begun working on Coppélia, but they won’t be focused on this production until April. There are some challenges to Coppélia because we haven’t done this production in 12 years, so it will be new for most of our current company dancers. Fortunately, former principal dancer Barbara Bears is serving as ballet mistress. She was in the company when Ben Stevenson created it and has danced it several times. Coppélia is one of the great comedic ballets. I adore the music and love the use of character dance in Act I. It’s a fun story about an irreverent girl who goes on an adventure, and the dancing and costume and scenic design are spectacular!
WIH Reporter: Could you share what it really takes to be a dancer with Houston Ballet. The last time we spoke you mentioned that one of the principal dancers had just become a mother. What type of regimen does it take to get back on stage?
Sommers: Our dancers work 5 days per week, unless we are in performance, and then they work six days a week. They typically start their day with a 90 minute technique class followed by 6 ours of rehearsal. Because they are working on 6 productions at once, they are carrying around a lot of choreography and information in their minds and bodies. They can work on 6 different ballets in those 6 hours of rehearsal. They get a lunch break and have access to athletic trainers and other therapies thanks to our partnership with Houston Methodist, but these are some of the hardest working artist/athletes you’ll find in Houston! For the dancers who’ve had babies, it’s really a personal journey for each one. I know they work to stay in shape during pregnancy and afterwards.
WIH Reporter: Talk to us about costume design. On average, how many costumes does each dancer have? What production has the most amount of costume changes and is the most expensive to produce?
Sommers: There are lots of costumes for our full-length ballets, and most dancers have more than one costume for those. For one act ballets, they usually only have one. Desmond Heely, a world-renowned, Tony award-winning designer created the costume and scenic design for Coppélia. His work is gorgeous and transforms the Brown Theater into a German village and magical toy shop in one night!
WIH Reporter: Houston Ballet is very involved in outreach in the community. What are some of the programs that you are most passionate about?
Sommers: That’s a hard question because I love all of our programs! If I have to pick two, I’d say one is our weekly Dance for Parkinson’s class held in partnership with Houston Area Parkinson Society. We are celebrating the 10th year of this program that works on strength, balance, creativity and creates community for people living with Parkinson’s Disease and their caregivers. The other is our Chance to Dance program. This is a scholarship program for students from low-income schools. We partner with 9 schools each academic year. 25 first and second graders attend 8 classical ballet classes at Houston Ballet Center for Dance with professional teachers and a live musician. At the end of class series, all students are evaluated for full scholarships to the Houston Ballet Academy. We currently have 62 students in the Academy that have entered through the Chance to Dance program. I’m really proud of the inclusive environment we have at Houston Ballet. We are committed to equitable access to the very best this company has to offer, and Chance to Dance is a big part of that.
WIH Reporter: This is such a unique opportunity for the participants of this class. What are you hoping that they will take away from the experience?
Sommers: I absolutely love having the opportunity to share my passion for this art form and to welcome people into the Houston Ballet family. We have some of the best dancers and creative minds working in dance today right here in Houston, and I want everyone to know about and experience it for themselves.
“Behind the Scenes at Houston Ballet” is a four-week class beginning Tuesday, April 23.