If there is one thing traveling has taught me, it is that the world is full of glorious surprises. Whereas expectation gives way to revelation so do preconceived notions necessarily give way to unexpected marvels. Such were my thoughts as I slipped into the architecturally revelatory Houston Ballet for a tour during a recent visit to the Lone Star State.
While many notable attributes immediately spring to mind when thinking about Houston – savory barbecue, oil derricks, urban sprawl and well above average Mexican fare, for starters – the ballet was not at the top of my list. That is, at least not until recently.
However, as I stood in the midst of the action on the fifth-floor corridor of the Houston Ballet, peering into sprawling studios where an abundance of unobstructed natural light appeared to defy the building’s central location overlooking downtown and the Bayou, I quickly arrived at the conclusion that the ballet was indeed a very serious business in Houston. In every corner, I spied the sincere toil, sweat and passion that have become the legend of the ballet as I envisioned many a Black Swan moment occurring in the hallowed halls and rehearsal spaces around which I presently trod.
“Houston isn’t [just] cowboys and NASA,” exclaimed Christian Brown, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Houston Ballet, with a hearty laugh as we strolled the company’s impressive home base. “I mean, it is but there is so much more that goes on here that is dynamic and that is making a unique, exciting echo of notice.”
In a town where big is the order of the day in almost every way, Brown’s humble pronouncement about what the Houston Ballet brings to the city it calls home is almost too understated. Not only is the acclaimed ballet company the fourth largest in America, it is the nation’s largest dance center or, to use Mr. Brown’s more apt description, it is “the largest building in the United States that was specifically designed for dance.”
Moreover, with Australian-born Artistic Director Stanton Welch at the company’s helm for the last decade, the Houston Ballet has soared in international acclaim – touring the globe, forming impressive alliances with renowned companies from Australia to Denmark and attracting top tier talent like William Forsythe and Justin Peck, among others, to work with the company and produce contemporary works. As further proof of its vaunted standing in the world of dance, this past month the company debuted a new $5 million production of the Nutcracker, complete with sets built outside London by the same shop that just completed the new Harry Potter experience. It is the Houston Ballet’s most ambitious production to date and it is expected to exceed last year’s attendance record of 77,000 guests over its 39-show run through December 27.
Bottom line: From its adjoining theatre, in-house cobblers, seamstresses, fabric hall and, yes, even dye shop, the Houston Ballet is a most impressive operation.
“It is the only fine arts organization in Houston that tours and has an international presence at this level,” Brown offers with a hint more of the boastfulness one might find more befitting of a Houstonian.
“We have 59 really talented dancers and, I think what [our Artistic Director] Stanton [Welch] would say, is that we have really talented men. Everyone has talented ladies but our men are fantastic and there are a lot of them and they’re strong and they’re good-looking and I think that is a unique attribute for us.”
Brown is quick to point out the make-up of the students of a class we happened upon during our tour to further drive home his point. “As you can see the ratio of guys to girls is almost, but not quite, half and half,” he offered as we looked in on the class. “Young men who want to be in companies and who want to be strong men in companies are attracted here because of Stanton and his emphasis on men dancing in ballet. [Here, they’re] not just lifting the ladies but having key roles as well. It’s not that [Stanton] over emphasizes men but he is more equal in his use of them.”
One such talented young male dancer who found his way to the Houston Ballet and the tutelage of the celebrated Mr. Welch is Rhys Kosakowski, the undiscovered young talent who would become the first actor outside of London to take on the lead role in Billy Elliot when the production debuted to rave reviews in Sydney back in 2007. Now, one might be inclined to think that, with this pedigree, the ballet would have been a natural calling for the rising star, but on that score, one would be as mistaken as I was in my original estimation of the Houston Ballet.
“My mom put me in jazz and tap lessons at a really young age, when I was maybe 6 or 7,” Kosakowski explains of his haphazard journey into the world of ballet, as he takes a breather in between rehearsals for the upcoming Nutcracker. “It was more like a fun, interactive kind of thing. But as I grew older I took an interest mainly in jazz and contemporary dance. My jazz teacher at the time said to me ‘If you really want to pursue jazz as a future, then you have to do ballet class.’ [Well] I was about 12 at the time and I wasn’t really into ballet at all but taking classes kind of opened my mind up to it a little bit. And then as I started to audition for Billy Elliott, I had to send in a ballet class video to audition. So that’s how ballet started for me. And then after I got the part of Billy, ballet just took off for me and that’s how I fell in love with it.”
Oddly enough, it was with the same degree of serendipity that Kosakowski made the leap from Down Under to the great state of Texas. Contrary to convention, he did not pine away over whimsical thoughts that he might one day join the Houston Ballet. In fact, he didn’t even think the leap was all that possible until his grandmother gave him a nudge in the right direction.
“After Billy Elliott finished, I took about year and went back home and did full time dancing college at the National College of Dance in Newcastle,” Rhys says of his career trajectory. “Then one day, my grandma saw an audition in the newspaper [for the Houston Ballet] and she said I should go for it. I thought I was never going to get it, but I went and then I got the offer to come to summer school so I came to Houston then. That was four years ago.”
As obstacle-free as his journey to one of America’s leading ballet companies may seem on paper, it is clear that the young dancer does not take his good fortune for granted. “Just saying that I’m in a ballet company is a great thing for me,” Kosakowski beams when asked the most rewarding aspect of being a part of the Houston Ballet.
He is likewise respectful of his role as part of the whole that makes up the ballet company. Despite his chiseled good looks, growing modeling portfolio and tens of thousands of followers on social media, Kosakowski seems devoid of even the slightest hint of a prima uomo persona. Asked if he thinks he brings anything unique to the Houston Ballet, he cautiously demurs replying that while “a lot dancers think they have [special] things that they bring, other people view how you dance differently.” That said, he does admit that perhaps his early training in jazz and contemporary dance has played to his advantage.
“I started ballet late so I can definitely say that I am not the most classically trained dancer in the Houston Ballet,” Kosakowski readily admits with a laugh. “But I can [also] definitely see that when other choreographers come in with contemporary works that I catch their eye because I am a little bit different to the rest. But then again, like I said, other people have different opinions about how I dance so… ‘ Another self-deprecating chuckle follows as he contemplates the thought.
The talented young dancer is similarly muted when asked about his ever-growing list of modeling stints and even his dream role. About the former, Kosakowski is quick to acknowledge, “I am not a model at all”, instead crediting his current popularity as a male mannequin to the fact that though models “know exactly what to do with their faces [photographers] want more movement, flow and softness in their photos”, hence the reason “a lot of fashion photographers and magazines really like the way dancers’ bodies look and move on camera.”
And as for that dream role, Kosakowski hasn’t given it much thought. The bright eyed young star who left Newcastle, the laidback, farming and coal-mining beachside town outside Sydney, to find his fortunes amid the concrete jungle that is Houston, is more concerned about doing the work than winning any particular part.
“I think every dancer gets that question and I think for a lot of dancers there is this one role they’ve dreamed of playing their whole lives,” Kosakowski offers in response to my query about a role he’s dying to play. “But, for me, I’ve never seen a role yet that made me feel that if I didn’t do it before I die, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Either the role hasn’t been created yet or I’m just the type of dancer who wants to do everything. I just want to do multiple roles…I feel like they’re all equal…I feel like they’re all amazing…that’s where I’m at right now.”
Fair enough. I’ll take that to mean the part has not yet been written.
In the meantime, however, see Rhys Kosakowski and the Houston Ballet perform the Nutcracker through the end of the month.
For tickets and more information about the Nutcracker, click here. Follow Rhys on Instagram @rhyskosakowski.